The Senate Republican leaders -- Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn and John Thune -- speak to reporters about their decision to use the nuclear option to confirm Neil Gorsuch. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: The Senate is careening down a slippery slope.

Republicans voted Thursday to change the rules of the chamber to allow for Neil Gorsuch to be confirmed to the Supreme Court with a simple majority. They believe Harry Reid deserves the blame for their decision to "go nuclear" because he lowered the threshold for non-Supreme Court nominees in 2013.

Right now, however, the majority and minority leaders agree that 60 votes should still be required to break a legislative filibuster, for bills related to issues like health care and tax reform:

  • “I don’t think the legislative filibuster is in danger,” says Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “There is not a single senator from the majority who thinks we ought to change the legislative filibuster.”
  • “I don’t think there’s any thirst to change the legislative rules,” adds Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Most Democrats and most Republicans have served in both the minority and majority and know what it means.”

But both parties are becoming more and more beholden to their respective bases of support. And as soon as McConnell loosens the rules for judicial nominees, he is certain to face intensifying pressure from conservative activists and Donald Trump’s White House to do it again for legislation. He may be able to resist, but historians, political scientists and several senators on both sides think that today’s move makes that leap eventually inevitable.

Bob Corker, on the left, chairs a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Among Republicans, he was the most outspoken about the risk of going nuclear. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

-- Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) dropped a truth bomb during an important but little-noticed floor speech last week. “Everybody says: Oh, we are never going to do it on legislation,” he said. “Come on! … If we continue on the path we are on right now, the very next time there is a legislative proposal that one side of the aisle feels is so important they cannot let their base down, the pressure builds, and then we are going to invoke the nuclear option on the legislative piece too. That is what will happen. Somebody will do it.”

Corker candidly acknowledged that Reid went nuclear in 2013 because Republicans were blocking Barack Obama nominees who were “actually pretty decent” from being confirmed. “But we did not want the balance of the D.C. Circuit to change because it was at four to four,” he said.

The Tennessean also nodded to how unprecedented it was for his party to block Merrick Garland last year, announcing just hours after Antonin Scalia’s death that no one Obama picked would even get a hearing. “It was a pretty audacious move, let's face it, and obviously it created some hard feelings on the other side,” he said.

Corker argued that the Garland and Gorsuch blockades, respectively, show neither party can withstand pressure from its base. “Let's face it: If we do not have respect for the institution we serve and for ourselves, no one else will,” he said. “For us to act like if we do it here, there is no way we would ever do it on a legislative piece--let me tell you this: … Two years ago, there would not have been a single Republican in our caucus who would have even considered voting for the nuclear option (now). As a matter of fact, we had discussions about changing it back. Then the election occurred, and we decided not to do that. … To say that we will never get to the point at which we will not change a legislative piece--give me a break! Somebody is not living in reality!”

-- Cornell Law School professor Josh Chafetz studied the filibuster exhaustively for a book called “Congress’s Constitution” that will come out in June. Based on his research, he agrees that it is a matter of when, not if, the body gets rid of it for legislation. “Given that a number of Senate Republicans are skeptical of significant portions of President Trump’s legislative agenda, one can imagine that they feel no tremendous need to smooth the way for that agenda’s passage,” he writes in an op-ed this morning. “Still, there will come a point — if not under this majority leader, then under some other — when the legislative filibuster consistently frustrates lawmaking in which the party that controls Washington is deeply invested. When that day comes, the history of legislative obstruction would suggest that the filibuster won’t be long for this world.”

-- Except for a handful of senators, nearly all 100 members recognize that what happened today will be a body blow to the institution. But both sides have fixated more on assigning blame for the chamber’s continuing race to the bottom than stopping the slow-motion car crash. Indeed, there has been strikingly little intellectual honesty during this week’s debate. Rank hypocrisy abounded on both sides.

Five years ago, McConnell said he would not invoke the nuclear option for Supreme Court nominees. Back then, he called it “one of the most cherished safeguards of liberty in our government—the right of a political minority to have a voice.” Now he argues that doing so will be good for the Senate.

“Idiot,” John McCain told Paul Kane yesterday. “Whoever says that is a stupid idiot, who has not been here and seen what I’ve been through and how we were able to avoid that on several occasions. And they are stupid and they’ve deceived their voters because they are so stupid.” The Arizona Republican led a bipartisan “Gang of 14” to save the filibuster back in 2005. Now he is going along with McConnell’s push because he thinks Gorsuch is reasonable and Democrats are not blocking him in good faith. But he refuses to parrot his party’s talking point that doing so will be good for the Senate. Asked about the “idiot” line from McCain, McConnell laughed and declined to comment.

A portrait of James Madison by Gilbert Stuart. (National Gallery of Art)

-- James Madison, a genius in the truest sense of the word, designed the Senate to be a cooling saucer, making it hard for narrow majorities to force their will on everyone else. Remember, the original intent of the framers was that there should not even be direct election of senators. The upper chamber was where learned elites were supposed to prevent mob rule and smaller states were given enough clout to protect their rights from being infringed. The House, with two-year terms and smaller districts, is more directly accountable to the people. The lower chamber’s rules further empower the majority. Historically, that body is more volatile, unruly and passes farther-reaching legislation, which gets watered down in conference committees.

The framers expected most members of the House to be amateurs who would come and go, while senators would benefit from cumulative experience. The point of having the Senate was to make sure legislation got a second reading by a more mature body of legislators. This is a feature, not a bug, of our system. Without the unique bicameral configuration, the Constitution might not have survived for 230 years.

Just like today, past changes to the Senate rules were also driven by altruistic intentions. One hundred years ago, a group of 11 senators blocked a bill that would have allowed U.S. merchant ships to arm themselves against German U-boats as World War I raged in Europe. The body responded by voting to add a new rule that allowed two-thirds of members to cut off debate, so that measures with near universal support couldn’t be obstructed. In 1975, Walter Mondale negotiated a deal to reduce the threshold for stopping debate from 66 votes to 60 votes. The Minnesotan spent 15 years fighting for this change, in part, because he wanted to make it easier to pass civil rights legislation over the objections of segregationist southerners.

No matter your politics, obstruction can be good. The filibuster has served a valuable purpose at key junctures in our history: In 1968, for instance, conservatives blocked Lyndon Johnson from elevating his crony Abe Fortas to replace Earl Warren as chief justice. Fortas resigned the next year to avoid being impeached over secret payments he had been receiving.

Ultimately, over the long term, the Senate becoming more majoritarian is worse for conservatives than liberals. The right, after all, does not want to pass sweeping laws that expand the size and scope of government. If Democrats had a majority and the legislative filibuster was gone, the left could raise taxes, jack up the minimum wage to $15, create universal health coverage, expand eligibility for other entitlements and enact cap-and-trade.

Mitch McConnell talks to the press on Capitol Hill. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

-- McConnell, who won his seat in 1984, gets it. He and his allies say they will maintain the legislative filibuster as long as he is majority leader. But the Republican base distrusts Washington and the party establishment. He has become the avatar of both. Explaining the virtues of the legislative filibuster in a 30-second ad or a mailer is exceptionally hard, especially when you have control and you already got rid of it for lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court.

Consider that McConnell is up for reelection in 2020, the same year as Trump. What will he do if the president starts attacking him on Twitter every day for blocking his agenda by not getting rid of the legislative filibuster? The president could fly to Louisville and say that Obamacare repeal and so much else didn’t happen because McConnell is clinging to an outdated rule that would be relatively easy to get rid of. What if Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart News peddled the narrative every day that McConnell is complicit in Democratic obstruction? What if Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were calling into talk radio saying that there’s so much good stuff that could get done if McConnell would just back off on the legislative filibuster? And what if the majority leader faced a well-funded primary challenger? Would he really stick to his principles at that point? Really?

“Like Chekhov’s gun, destined to be fired by the third act once it appeared on the wall in the first, this moment was certain to arrive from the day that [Reid] first pulled the nuclear trigger,” Ruth Marcus lamented in her column earlier this week. She was referring to what’s happening now, but the same principle of playwriting applies to the legislative filibuster as well.

Chuck Schumer talks with The Post in his office about blocking Neil Gorsuch. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

-- The bigger picture: Thursday's move really should be viewed in the context of a long-running parliamentary arms race. “It is tempting to view Democrats’ behavior as payback for Republican norm-breaking that blocked Garland. And in the short term, it is,” writes George Washington University political science professor Sarah Binder. “But the longer view reveals an equally important dynamic. As the parties become ever more polarized, party majorities have been looking to the Senate rules to find new ways to pursue their agendas.”

Partisanship has been on a steady rise in the Senate for decades. One measure Binder uses to illustrate the dynamic is the increasing partisan conflict in the outcomes of cloture votes. She created the chart below to show the average party differences on cloture votes, which is to say, the difference between the percentage of majority and minority party senators voting yea. “If 90 percent of the majority party and just 20 percent of the minority party vote in favor of cloture, the difference is 70 percent,” she explains in a new post for our Monkey Cage blog. “Remarkably, procedural partisanship has more than doubled since the 1970s … You can’t see this in the figure, but since the first Bush administration, Democrats have filed for cloture significantly more often than have Republicans — suggesting that the GOP has more aggressively tried to block the majority than have Democrats.”

Declining judicial confirmation rates are just one manifestation of this:

“The longer-term evolution of the Senate has followed a very slow path toward majority rule,” Binder concludes. “Senators have rarely reversed course, suggesting that a cohesive and ambitious Senate party could one day be tempted to finish the march to majority rule.”

Ivanka Trump and her daughter, Arabella Kushner, walk down the steps of the Supreme Court last month after attending oral arguments at the encouragement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who extended an invitation when they met at an inauguration lunch. (Molly Riley/AP)

-- COAXING KENNEDY TO RETIRE: Trump’s White House is already gearing up for the next Supreme Court vacancy. One primary goal of going with Gorsuch was to get Anthony Kennedy, who he once clerked for, to step aside. If Trump got to replace the 80-year-old, he could markedly shift the country’s jurisprudence to the right. Politico’s Shane Goldmacher reports this morning on five components of this behind-the-scenes campaign:

  • One back channel is the fact that Kennedy’s son, Justin, knows Donald Trump, Jr. through New York real estate circles.
  • Another is through Kennedy’s other son, Gregory, and Trump’s Silicon Valley adviser Peter Thiel. They went to Stanford Law School together and served as president of the Federalist Society in back-to-back years. More recently, Kennedy’s firm, Disruptive Technology Advisers, has worked with Thiel’s company Palantir Technologies. In fact, during the early months of the Trump administration, Gregory Kennedy has worked at NASA as a senior financial adviser as part of the so-called ‘beachhead’ team."
  • In February, Ivanka attended Supreme Court oral arguments as Kennedy’s guest.
  • After the president wrapped up his first speech to Congress, he lingered to talk with Kennedy. The boom mics picked up their exchange. “Say hello to your boy,” Trump said, “Special guy.” “Your kids have been very nice to him,” Kennedy replied. “Well, they love him, and they love him in New York,” Trump replied.
  • The White House has also begun closely monitoring retirement chatter by tapping into the network of former Kennedy clerks.
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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

Refusing to speak to journalists, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Congressman Devin Nunes (R-CA) rushes away from media after a Republican Conference meeting. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

-- House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) temporarily recused himself this morning from all matters related to the committee’s ongoing probe into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, as House investigators look into ethics allegations against him. From Karoun Demirjian: “Nunes said in a statement that he decided to recuse himself after ‘several leftwing activist groups’ filed complaints with the Office of Congressional Ethics about his leadership. Nunes called the charges ‘entirely false and politically motivated,’ but said his recusal would be in effect while the House Ethics Committee looks into the matter.”

  • The House Ethics Committee released a statement Thursday saying it had “determined to investigate” allegations that “Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct.”
  • Nunes said in his statement that he has requested to speak to the House Ethics Committee “at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.”
  • In the meantime, Rep. Michael K. Conaway (R-Tex.) will take the lead on the Russia investigation, with assistance from Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.).
  • Paul Ryan said at a press conference that he still has confidence in Nunes and does not think he did anything wrong. “But Chairman Nunes wants to make sure he is not a distraction to this very important investigation,” the Speaker said.
  • The ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), commended Nunes for stepping down “in the best interests of the committee, and I respect that decision.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. An F-16 fighter jet on a training mission crashed near Joint Base Andrews after experiencing mechanical problems shortly after takeoff. The pilot ejected, uninjured. (Dana Hedgpeth, Steve Hendrix and Lynh Bui)
  2. The Navy grounded its entire fleet of T-45 trainer jets after instructor pilots raised concerns about the ability of aviators to breathe while airborne. More than 100 Navy pilots were reportedly refusing to fly until the issue is resolved. (Dan Lamothe)
  3. The Marine Corps moved to advance the prosecution of two drill instructors accused of hazing and abusing recruits, including one who allegedly called a Muslim recruit a “terrorist” before putting him in a clothes dryer and turning it on repeatedly. (Dan Lamothe)
  4. A Secret Service agent on Mike Pence’s security detail has been suspended after meeting with a prostitute while off-duty at a Maryland hotel. An agency spokesperson confirmed that last week's “incident” is under investigation and said the agent is on administrative leave.(CNN)
  5. A federal judge ruled for the first time that the federal fair housing law also protects LBGT people, extending protections that make it unlawful to refuse to rent or sell housing to anyone because of “sex, familial status, or national origin.” (Fred Barbash)
  6. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley could face criminal charges after a state ethics investigation into his alleged affair with a female staffer found probable cause that the embattled Republican broke campaign finance laws. The district attorney now has the case file for possible prosecution. (Derek Hawkins)
  7. Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old Democratic candidate for Tom Price’s House seat, raised $8.3 million in the first quarter, almost all of it online. That’s a breathtaking amount of money for a non-self-funder in a House special election where Republicans remain favored. He’s got $2.1 million cash on hand.
  8. Nick Ayers, a  Pence adviser who tried to become RNC chair but got passed over, is now considering a run for governor of Georgia next year. He was executive director of the Republican Governors Association and managed Tim Pawlenty's 2012 campaign but has never run for office. Nick would enter a wide-open primary field to replace outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal, though several high-profile state lawmakers have also expressed interest. (Politico)
  9. About one in ten U.S. women who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant in 2016 had a fetus or baby born with deformities, according to a new CDC study. The research is the first of its kind to be released since the mosquito-borne virus made its way into the U.S. (AFP)
  10. Another CDC study finds that more than one in five U.S. adults are infected by a high-risk type of genital HPV that heightens their likelihood of getting certain cancers. That percentage jumped to more than 42 percent if any type of HPV was included – sobering statistics that researchers said should not go ignored. “We tend to overlook the fact that 20 percent of us are carrying the virus that can cause cancer,” said Geraldine McQuillan, lead author of the report. “People really need to realize that this is a serious concern.” (Jia Naqvi)
  11. A Kuwaiti woman was arrested for failing to help her Ethiopian maid as she dangled from a seventh-story window and pleaded desperately for her life. “Hold on to me! Hold on to me!” the maid screamed but the woman simply moved closer with a video camera.The incident spotlights alarming employee abuse across the Persian Gulf, where foreign workers are cheap and plentiful. (Avi Selk)
  12. In Russia, it’s now illegal to share an image of Vladimir Putin as a gay clown. The government said the cartoon imagery constituted “internet extremism,” but by the time it weighed in, multiple versions of the meme began taking form, posing a unique problem for news outlets: how can you report on an illegal image without actually sharing it? (Avi Selk and David Filipov)
  13. A drug kingpin who was close to “El Chapo” was sentenced to life in prison in the U.S., as well as a $529 million forfeiture based on what the judge said was an “extremely conservative” estimate of the amount of cocaine he moved into the U.S. (Spencer Hsu)
  14. Pepsi yanked its Kendall Jenner ad after it prompted widespread outrage online, with critics saying the tone-deaf spot – featuring Jenner going toe-to-toe with police before offering them a Pepsi (and prompting the group to inexplicably break into cheers) -- trivializes the Black Lives Matter movement. (Amy B Wang)
  15. A New York gym chain announced it will turn off cable news because it is “stressing people out” – opting instead to feature “uplifting” programming. The move comes just one month after a Pennsylvania YMCA moved to ban cable news from its facility, saying the networks were causing too many fights among gym rats. (New York Magazine)
  16. A member of parliament in Malaysia said there is “nothing wrong” with rape victims being forced to marry their rapist – even children. (Lindsey Bever)
  17. Some New York parents are calling for the resignation of the state education commissioner after she was quoted by a reporter saying she could understand the merits of an assignment given to high school students to argue for or against the “Final Solution” -- the extermination of the Jewish people during World War II – because it “could foster critical thinking.” MaryEllen Elia has retracted her statement, but several PTA organizations say her apology is not enough. (Valerie Strauss)
  18. Taser International is changing its name as it tries to ramp up its body-camera business. Executives don't want to be immediately associated with their most “polarizing” product. (Mark Berman)
  19. Iran is holding its first international marathon this weekend, but women will be forced to run separately from men. In fact, women will be prohibited from competing outside at all. They have to run 26.2 miles on an indoor track. (Marissa Payne)
Paul Ryan speaks during a luncheon hosted by wispolitics.com on Capitol Hill yesterday. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

A LITTLE MOVEMENT ON HEALTH CARE:

-- House GOP leaders are making last-minute modifications to their stalled health care bill today, in response to pressure from the White House to show progress on the legislation before lawmakers leave for a two-week recess. Paige Winfield Cunningham, Juliet Eilperin and Mike DeBonis report: “Four people familiar with the plans … said an amendment providing for ‘high-risk pools’ — a mechanism to subsidize insurance coverage for the seriously ill — will be added to the health-care bill at a Rules Committee meeting Thursday. Two of the people said the change was being arranged at the White House’s request, hours after [Paul Ryan] made an evening visit to the White House to discuss the issue with [Trump, Pence] and other officials. Until the meeting, there was no indication that there would be a formal effort to tweak the bill before lawmakers left Washington…

“The amendment in question, sponsored by Reps. Gary Palmer and David Schweikert would set up a federal insurance pool for those with serious and expensive medical conditions such as cancer or congestive heart failure. The fund is intended to subsidize coverage for patients with those serious preexisting conditions to lower premiums for healthier patients. Some House members, though not all, see the provision as a companion to potentially allowing states to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s ban on charging those patients higher premiums, known as ‘community rating.’”

Steve Bannon listens during a White House meeting. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

"PRESIDENT BANNON" NO MORE:

-- Trump removed Steve Bannon from his position on the National Security Council Wednesday as part of a major staff reshuffling, elevating key military and intelligence officials to greater roles on the council and greatly reducing Bannon’s influence in shaping day-to-day security policy. Robert Costa, Abby Phillip, and Karen DeYoung report: “The restructuring reflects the growing influence of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army three-star general who took over the post after retired general Michael Flynn was ousted in February and who is increasingly asserting himself over the flow of national security information in the White House. McMaster has become a blunt force within the administration who has made clear to several top officials and the president that he does not want the NSC to have any political elements. Two senior White House officials said that Bannon’s departure was in no way a demotion and that he had rarely attended meetings since being placed on the council.

“Bannon's place on the committee had been a subject of intense controversy … [and national security experts] characterized it as an elevation of a White House official with no national security experience, even while other national security officials in the administration were included on the NSC only when ‘issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise’ were involved,” our colleagues write. “[But] White House officials strongly disputed that characterization … [saying] Bannon’s role early on … was to guide and in essence keep watch over Flynn, who was tasked with reshaping the operation but whose management style could be combative.”

-- Bannon threatened to resign from his White House post amid continued West Wing infighting – namely with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – but he was convinced to stay on by Republican megadonor Rebekah Mercer, Politico’s Eliana Johnson, Kenneth P. Vogel and Josh Dawsey report: “Bannon has complained that Kushner and his allies are trying to undermine his populist approach … [but] Mercer, a longtime Bannon confidante who became a prominent Trump supporter during the campaign, urged Bannon not to resign. [One] person familiar with the situation, a GOP operative who talks to Mercer, said: ‘Bekah tried to convince him that this is a long-term play.’ The tension between the two is indicative of a larger power struggle in the White House as Kushner’s prominence and responsibility have ballooned. Kushner has also told people that he thinks Mercer as well as her father … have taken too much credit for their role in his victory, and has expressed misgivings about their go-it-alone approach to outside spending boosting Trump’s agenda.” “If Bannon leaves the White House, Bekah’s access and influence shrinks dramatically,” said the GOP operative who talks to Mercer.

-- “The removal of Bannon from the NSC comes in the wake of a series of other moves -- most notably the arrival of Trump's daughter, Ivanka, in the West Wing -- that suggest that the president is moving away (at least for the moment) from the more hard-line ideological bent of Bannon,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza writes. “The Trump White House sought to spin the Bannon decision not as a demotion but rather a natural conclusion to his initial appointment to the principals committee. But, that doesn't really check out. If Bannon's position on the NSC was always meant to be temporary why not say that from the outset? It's hard not to see the Bannon move in the broader context of Trump's first 75 days in office, which have been, to put it mildly, chaotic … While Trump -- like all politicians -- is loathe to admit a change of direction is needed or that mistakes have been made, it's hard to look at his current position and conclude anything else. To be clear: Bannon will remain in the White House -- and in a senior role. But the diminution of his power -- and in such a public way -- is a clear sign that a shakeup in the Trump power structure is under way.”

-- A former Breitbart News writer, who worked under Bannon, is launching a radio show for the Russian propaganda network Sputnik. “I’m on the Russian payroll now. When you work at Sputnik, you’re being paid by the Russians,” Lee Stranahan, who served as an investigative reporter for the site, told The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray. “That’s what it is. I don’t have any qualms about it. Nothing about it really affects my position on stuff that I’ve had for years now.” The Breitbart alumnus dismisses stories about Trump's links to Russia as “bogus.” Additionally, he says he is considering offers from two different companies to cover the White House.

TRUMP SAYS HE'S EVOLVING ON SYRIA:

-- Trump discussed Syria and the Islamic State during a joint news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan Wednesday, acknowledging that he is now responsible for handling the ongoing Syrian crisis, even as he provided no details on how he intends to address the attack. He also signaled vaguely that his position on Assad has changed. Abby Phillip reports: “I now have responsibility,” Trump said, speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden Wednesday. “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.” The remarks were the first in which the president described the impact that footage from the attacks had on him – and he suggested his position on military engagement in Syria may have shifted.

“I do change and I am flexible,” Trump said. “That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. Big impact. … It's very, very possible that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said. But he refused to disclose his strategy: “One of the things I think you've noticed about me is militarily I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing,” Trump said. “But I’m certainly not going to be telling you.”

-- Notably, he continued to refrain from mentioning Russia in his remarks -- even as another official from his administration, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, assailed Moscow for its staunch diplomatic and military support of the Assad regime. Anne Gearan reports: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Haley said in New York, speaking at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting devoted to the chemical attack. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” Haley said.

Russia’s representative lamented what he called “clearly an ideological thrust” to the discussion at the Security Council. “Accusations of the Assad regime’s involvement are ‘closely interwoven with the anti-Damascus campaign, which hasn’t yet reached the place it deserves on the landfill of history,’ Russian representative Sergey Kononuchenko said. Instead, they said, Syrian rebels were to blame.

-- Trump has vowed to follow a radically new approach to foreign policy that prioritizes America’s immediate economic and security interests over attempts at moral leadership. But crises in Syria and North Korea are now putting his “America First” policy to the test. Greg Jaffe writes: “Despite [Trump’s tough talk Wednesday], the Syrian chemical weapons attack poses a particular problem for Trump’s foreign policy philosophy. The attack by Assad’s forces offends America’s values and it violates long-standing international norms of behavior, but it does not present an immediate threat to America’s security or its economic interests. In an ‘America First’ world, it is an atrocity, but hardly a call to action for the United States and its allies. The big question was how long Trump’s sense of outrage would last and whether it would lead to substantive action ... ‘The president just made a statement on Assad that looks 180 degrees different from his actual policy,’ said Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University … “This may be a scattershot administration with a president that responds to near-term stimulus rather than long-term planning or strategy.”

A Syrian man says goodbye to his twin babies who were killed, along with his wife, in the suspected chemical attack. (AP/Alaa Alyousef)

THE GROUND TRUTH:

-- Heartbreaking footage continues to emerge, including the above photo of 29-year-old Abdul Hamid Alyousef, rocking the lifeless bodies of his nine-month-old twin daughters as he says his final goodbyes. Youssef says he lost 25 members of his extended family -- including his wife -- in the attack. When the airstrike took place, "I was right beside them and I carried them outside the house with their mother," Alyousef told the AP. "They were conscious at first, but 10 minutes later we could smell the odor." 

-- Top medical groups have concluded that the chemical agent used in the attack likely involved a banned nerve agent. Louisa Loveluck and Zakaria Zakaria report: This week’s attack was the deadliest assault on civilians in Syria since Assad’s forces attacked rebel-held suburbs of Damascus with sarin in 2013, bringing the Obama administration to the brink of war. Meanwhile, officials said victims showed symptoms “consistent” with reaction to the nerve agent, which Assad agreed to destroy years ago in order to stave off U.S. military intervention. Doctors Without Borders said its medics treated patients with diluted pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation “consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents such as sarin.” Global treaties have long banned the use of chemical substances, some of which can kill “within minutes.”

NYT INTERVIEW:

-- Trump said, without evidence, that former national security adviser Susan Rice “may have committed a crime” by seeking the identities of Trump associates picked up during intelligence collection. “I think it’s going to be the biggest story,” Trump told the New York Times in an interview. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.” When asked if Rice had committed a crime, he said: “Do I think? Yes, I think.” His unsubstantiated claim came one day after Rice strongly pushed back on reports of impropriety in an MSNBC interview, calling allegations that she utilized intelligence for political purposes “absolutely false.” On Wednesday, she declined to comment through a spokesman: “I’m not going to dignify the President’s ludicrous charge with a comment.” (Abby Phillip has a spot story. Glenn Kessler tries to sort out what's true and false about Trump's comments.)

-- Trump also defended embattled Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, praising him as “a good person” and declaring, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.” Days after the Times reported that five women had received settlements after making harassment claims against him, Trump told Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush: “Personally, I think he shouldn’t have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way; I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”

-- The president also declined to say whether he would contact Putin about his support for the Assad regime in wake of this week’s chemical attacks: “I never talk about what I do militarily. I’ve been complaining about that for years. In terms of Syria. I just don’t talk about it. People say, ‘Will you do something with Syria?’ I just don’t talk about it.” (Read the transcript here.)

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrives to testify before a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing yesterday. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

PERSONNEL IS POLICY:

-- Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said it is “doubtful” that a full border wall with Mexico will ever actually be built. "It is unlikely that we will build a wall from sea to shining sea," Kelly told senators on the Homeland Security Committee Wednesday. Instead, he said, the department will look to build physical barriers such as fencing and concrete walls "in places that make sense." "The first bids for prototypes of the border wall were due Tuesday," the New York Times reports. "According to people briefed on the agency’s plan, the first new section of the wall will be built on a short strip of federally owned land in San Diego, where there is already fencing.”

-- Scott Pruitt is moving to dismantle two programs at the EPA focused on limiting childhood exposure to lead-based paint – known to cause damage to developing brains and nervous systems – by $16.61 million. Old housing stock is the biggest risk for lead exposure, and officials estimate some 38 million U.S. homes still contain lead-based paint. (Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin)

-- Scott Gottlieb, Trump's nominee to lead the FDA, said that the country’s opioid crisis is as serious a threat as Ebola and Zika, vowing during his confirmation hearing that he would make the epidemic his “highest priority.” His comments came a day after two senators whose states have been hit particularly hard by prescription painkillers opposed his nomination, saying his record, as well as his “extensive ties” to the pharmaceutical industry, suggested he would not use the right tools to fight the problem. (Laurie McGinley)

-- Top Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn said he supports splitting lending and investment banks during a private meeting with lawmakers Wednesday – backing a policy that could radically reshape Wall Street’s biggest firms. The remarks surprised some senators and congressional aides, who did not expect the ex-Goldman banker to speak favorably of proposals that would force banks to “dramatically rethink” how they do business. (Bloomberg)

Some 300 French soldiers deployed to Estonia this week to protect NATO on its eastern flank with Russia. (Estonian Ministry of Defence/EPA)

CAN A FREE EUROPE STAVE OFF RUSSIAN MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS? Two Post reports from across the pond:

-- “Americans and Western Europeans have only just begun to wake up to Russia’s use of information as a tool of mischief. But it’s nothing new to the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which regained their independence from the old Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s,” Christian Caryl writes. “For the past quarter of a century they’ve been doing their best to respond to the inflow of destabilizing innuendo from their huge neighbor to the east. Interference with elections? Check. Cyberattacks? Check. Prominent politicians with murky links to the Kremlin? Check. Fake news and skillfully targeted rumors? Double check. Along the way the Balts have learned important lessons that their friends in the United States and Western Europe would do well to note. Most experts stress that trying to debunk every fake story spewed out by Moscow’s giant lie machine is the wrong way to go.” “They have a huge toolbox,” says Estonian foreign intelligence chief Mikk Maran. “Russia has been active. The West has been reactive.” “If you only focus on countering, you’re on their territory,” says Ben Heap, a member of a NATO think tank based in Riga, Latvia.

-- “How do you stop fake news? In Germany, with a law," by Anthony Faiola and Stephanie Kirchner: “Germany officially unveiled a landmark social-media bill Wednesday that could quickly turn this nation into a test case in the effort to combat the spread of fake news and hate speech in the West. The highly anticipated draft bill is also highly contentious, with critics denouncing it as a curb on free speech. If passed, as now appears likely, the measure would compel large outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to rapidly remove fake news that incites hate, as well as other “criminal” content, or face fines as high as 50 million euros ($53 million). Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet agreed on the draft bill Wednesday, giving it a high chance of approval in the German Parliament before national elections in September. In effect, the move is Germany’s response to a barrage of fake news during last year’s elections in the United States, with officials seeking to prevent a similar onslaught here."

-- The Russians are waging a silent war against western institutions and values, but they also have a sense of humor: “On April Fools' Day, the Russian Foreign Ministry posted on its Facebook page a sendup of a Russian Embassy's answering machine,” Carol Morello reports. “The recorded message could be heard in Russian and English: ‘You have reached the Russian Embassy. Your call is very important to us. To arrange a call from a Russian diplomat to your political opponents, press 1. To use the services of Russian hackers, press 2. To request election interference, press 3 and wait until the next election campaign. Please note that all calls are recorded for quality improvement and training purposes.’”

THE CHINA SUMMIT STARTS TONIGHT:

-- Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet for the first time today at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, as the world leaders begin a two-day summit expected largely to be dominated by trade and North Korea.  

-- “When [Trump] meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the president’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago club in Florida Thursday, the scene will be scrutinized by diplomats, foreign policy specialists, and the media for clues on how two of the world’s most important leaders get along,” The Boston Globe’s Annie Linskey  writes. “The backdrop will serve another purpose: giving the American president his highest-profile event yet to show off his for-profit private club and crystallizing how Trump is transforming the American presidency by merging international diplomacy, politics, and free-media marketing for his business empire. Trump’s White House says the president wants Xi to feel comfortable for high-level talks in the relaxed environs of his Palm Beach club, a crown jewel in Trump’s global array of holdings. But to Trump’s harshest critics, the scene reeks of a corrupt blending of public power, personal profit, and undue access for wealthy club members.”

-- The Chinese side was initially hesitant to hold the meeting there: “Even after seeing images of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's back-slapping sessions with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in February, Chinese officials thought the oceanfront, Spanish-style club in Palm Beach, Florida, lacked the symbolic significance of the White House itself,” Reuters reports. “They thought, no, it has to be the White House, the symbolism of that,” said a senior administration official. “They were ultimately convinced that this was worth doing. It’s unusual because most foreigners realize that being invited to the president’s personal place is a big deal.”

Trump and Kushner speak with manufacturing CEOs in the State Dining Room at the White House. (Saul Loeb/Getty) 

THE FIRST FAMILY:

-- Donald Trump Jr. wants to run for political office, telling members of an elite New York gun club that he “could set his sights on becoming governor of New York," Page Six’s Emily Smith reports. “Don Jr. spoke to members of the F6 Labs gun club in Hicksville, NY, and, when asked about his political ambitions, said he would love to follow his father … into office. A guest at Tuesday’s meeting [said]: ‘Don Jr. said he is interested in running for office, such as governor of New York, but the position of mayor of New York would be less interesting to him.’” Campaigning alongside his father made him think about his future, with him saying, “Do I want to be behind the scenes and be a mouthpiece and fight back against crazy liberal media? Maybe.” Don Jr. joked that he “missed the intensity” of the presidential campaign: “Going back to doing deals is boring after 18 months. The politics bug bit me.”

-- Ivanka quietly reached out to Cecile Richards in the weeks following her father’s inauguration, holding a sit-down meeting with the Planned Parenthood president seeking common ground on the contentious issue of abortion. The meeting came as part of a broader “listening tour” held by Ivanka, as she seeks to stake a claim on women’s issues and meet with other activists – though her relationship with Richards has soured significantly since their meeting. (Politico)

-- Jared Kushner is hiring a Hollywood PR executive to run communications for his new Office of American Innovation, the nascent White House office which seeks to apply successful business practices to the federal government in order to help make it run more smoothly. Josh Raffel, currently at Blumhouse Productions, formerly worked for a New York-based PR shop employed by Kushner’s family business. (The Hollywood Reporter)

-- Trump himself has hosted several prominent right-wing media hosts at the White House recently, inviting Rush Limbaugh and his wife, Kathryn, for dinner last month. The same week, Trump hosted Fox News host Jeanine Pirro for dinner. The sit-down with Pirro occurred the week before Trump urged his millions of Twitter followers to watch Pirro’s program, in which she blasted Paul Ryan and called for his resignation after the failure of his health care bill. (Politico)

-- “Telling Trump’s Story to Children: For Book Publishers, It’s Tricky,” by the New York Times's Katherine Rosman: “Presidential biographies aimed at young readers hit bookshelves every four years. But the latest round has posed a unique set of challenges.”

THE PUNDITS WEIGH IN:

-- In a tongue-and-cheek column, the New York Times' Frank Bruni highlights the scope of Jared Kushner’s to-do list – and what it says about the man who tasked him with such an impossible agenda: “Kushner’s to-do list … contains the small, pesky item of brokering a durable truce between the Israelis and the Palestinians. ‘If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can,’ Trump [told Kushner], who has absolutely no background in diplomacy. But he’ll figure it out in those down moments. [And] take note: When you file your taxes in about two weeks, you can send them either to the [IRS] or to Kushner. He’ll be chipping in with the auditing. I jest … But Kushner’s many mandates aren’t a laughing matter. They’re a reflection of some of Trump’s most unsettling traits as president, and Kushner is a symbol of his delusions. The president seems to see certain people as exempt from the laws of gravity, and he has accorded Kushner a place snug beside him in that pantheon. ... I’m told by insiders that when Trump’s long-shot campaign led to victory, he and Kushner became convinced not only that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about America, but that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about the two of them. Kushner was reborn with new powers, and to the heavens he ascended. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s ridiculous.”

-- “A raft of critics have recently come after Jared and Ivanka, alleging that they don’t know a thing about policy (well, yeah) and that they’re awash in ethical conflicts (like that matters),” Yahoo News’ Matt Bai writes. “But the problem with Washington’s newest power couple is larger and more pervasive than any of that, and it illuminates the underlying darkness in this administration[:] Jared and Ivanka are accountable to exactly no one.”

 “And this gets to the heart of my issue with Kushner and Ivanka, and with the Trump family acquisition of the White House generally. Basically, they’ve decided all of a sudden that they’d very much like to run the country for a spell, but they’re not willing to sacrifice a … thing for the privilege. Public service is a playground to them, an accidental hobby. I’d be willing to give Jared and Ivanka the benefit of the doubt — even absent any obvious humility or aptitude for their jobs — if they were willing to entirely divest themselves from competing interests, as Cabinet secretaries do. They won’t, because it’s not their way … To the Trump-Kushner axis, those people are just suckers who don’t have what it takes to get rich, or at least to be born that way. The privileges they inherited are theirs to keep while they meddle around with policies that affect the rest of us. The honor, I guess, is all ours.”

-- Paul Waldman writes on the Plum Line Blog that Trump is already creating a “world of chaos”: “Trump is stepping up military action in places where the United States is already engaged, advocating huge increases in military spending, and simultaneously trying to gut the State Department. His secretary of state seems to be sleepwalking through his job, and is operating with barely any staff; it’s obvious that the administration regards diplomacy as little more than a distraction. With regard to Syria, the administration’s position is literally that 1) it’s bad for Assad to kill civilians, but 2) we don’t want anyone fleeing that war to come to America, and 3) it’s all Obama’s fault anyway. … It isn’t even clear what goals the administration will be pursuing. What kind of world would Trump like to create? Your guess is as good as mine. That’s not exactly a recipe for global stability.”

An advertisement for Bill O'Reilly's top-rated Fox News show is displayed in the window of the News Corporation headquarters in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

WAPO HIGHLIGHT:

-- “Is this the end of Bill O’Reilly? That’s a complicated question,” by Paul Farhi: “Is Bill O’Reilly too big to fire? The question wouldn’t even have been asked just a few days ago. The most popular attraction on cable, O’Reilly seemed to be Fox News Channel’s indispensable man, the embodiment of its pugnacious identity. Now? The question is plausible, but the likely answer is unsatisfying: It depends — on multiple, unpredictable factors.  Major companies … said they were ‘suspending’ their ads on the show until — well, it’s not clear when ‘until’ is. And that could be one, if not the, decisive factor in ‘The O’Reilly Factor’s’ continued existence. A sustained and widespread advertiser shunning of O’Reilly would be painful, undermining a key economic rationale for his program. [On the other hand] … advertising losses, if any, are just one part of the financial picture for Fox. The bulk of revenue for cable networks come from cable and satellite providers that deliver the programs to viewers. And this money flows from long-term contracts, unaffected by momentary controversies. In this regard, what O’Reilly’s audience does, rather than his advertisers, may be of greater importance to Fox’s bottom line.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Melania Trump and Jordanian Queen Rania Al-Abdullah visited an all-girls charter school, joined by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to promote empowerment of young women while also advancing the White House’s interest in promoting alternatives to public schools. Emma Brown has more. (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

Many pointed out the hypocrisy of lamenting the plight of those in Syria and also banning them from coming to the U.S.:

Ummm:

Who leaked this?

Top Chef gets political:

Van Jones had this to say about Bill O'Reilly:

Puppy love in Indiana:

Who wants this man's autograph?

Awwwww:

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Nivea’s ‘White Is Purity’ ad campaign didn’t end well,” from Amy B Wang: “Nivea has pulled a deodorant ad that declared ‘White Is Purity’ after people protested that the slogan is racist, and after others hijacked the ad’s online campaign with comments about white supremacy. The ad … originally targeted the German skin care company’s followers in the Middle East. It was intended to promote Nivea’s ‘Invisible for Black and White’ deodorant and depicted the back of a woman’s head with long, wavy, dark hair that tumbled over an all-white outfit. Underneath the woman’s locks was the slogan in all caps: ‘WHITE IS PURITY.’ The caption on Nivea’s Facebook post read: ‘Keep it clean, keep bright. Don’t let anything ruin it, #Invisible.’ The post was quickly condemned by those who saw it as promoting racist rhetoric. Still others appeared to praise the ad — for the same reasons. One white supremacist group commented, 'We enthusiastically support this new direction your company is taking. I’m glad we can all agree that #WhiteIsPurity.'"

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Texas Man Arrested For Shooting At Perps Trying To Abduct His Fiance,” from the Daily Caller: “A Texas man was surprised to find himself in handcuffs after he thwarted a kidnapping attempt by unleashing a barrage of bullets at the attackers. When Jeremiah Morin, 35, of Spring, Texas, saw two masked kidnappers trying to snatch his fiance in the driveway of their Houston-area home, he drew his pistol and fired several shots at the men, causing them to flee. Montgomery Country sheriff’s officers who responded to the incident arrested Morin, not the would-be kidnappers, for third-degree felony of “deadly conduct,” the Dallas Morning News reported. Officers said he had fired his weapon ‘in a complete disregard and reckless manner’ and without consideration of whether there were innocent bystanders in nearby cars or houses. Morin and his fiance, Angela Estrada, were upset that police determined he was the one who committed a crime during the attempted kidnapping.”

 

DAYBOOK:

At the White House: Trump will participate in the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride before departing to West Palm Beach, Florida. In the evening, Trump and Melania will have dinner with President Xi Jinping and Madame Peng Liyuan of China. Mike Pence, meanwhile, will participate in the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride alongside Trump.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said in his closely watched annual letter to investors that the United States is an "exceptional" country, but he added that "something is wrong" in America. After spelling out a host of concerns regarding the challenges the country faces, he wrote: "Making this list was an upsetting exercise.” (Read his 45-page letter here.)

 

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

-- A warm day, but lots of storming expected. Today’s Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Showers and storms are likely through early afternoon, some of which could be heavy. The strongest cells could produce locally damaging winds and hail, with the highest risk of severe weather south of the District. An isolated tornado or two can’t even be ruled out. Rain amounts are likely to average around a half-inch, but some areas could certainly top the inch mark. In the afternoon, the sun could peek out at times, but a few gusty showers, which could contain hail, may still cycle through. Highs reach the upper 60s to lower 70s.”

-- ICE officials arrested 82 people in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. last week, as part of a five-day immigration sweep that immigration officials described as “routine.” The arrests included 68 people with previous criminal records, including a man they said was identified as an officer in command of a Somali organization known for its human rights abuses, rape, torture and killings. (Patricia Sullivan)

-- The Nationals beat the Marlins 6-4.

-- The Capitals beat the New York Rangers 2-0 and clinched the Presidents’ Trophy!

-- “Virginia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly returned to Richmond on Wednesday for what has become an annual but fruitless ritual — attempting to override the vetoes of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D)," Laura Vozzella and Gregory S. Schneider report: “‘Hope springs eternal,’ Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) said as she encouraged fellow senators to rescue her bill, which would have allowed domestic-violence victims and others covered by protective orders to carry a concealed weapon without the usual permit or training. The Senate voted 23 to 17 in favor of the bill, falling short of the 27 votes needed to override the veto. It was like that all day. And it has been like that throughout McAuliffe’s term, which began in January 2014 and has seen him veto more bills than any other Virginia governor."

-- Faculty leaders at Howard University have no confidence in the school’s top administrators. Citing concerns about financial problems, lack of transparency and failures of leadership, the faculty council passed a “no confidence” resolution related to both the president and provost. But some faculty say the vote took them by surprise and that it was procedurally invalid, and they question whether it is an accurate representation of the views of professors at the historically black university. (Susan Svrluga and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Does Sean Spicer treat the White House press corps like kids?

Look at these adorable cheetah cubs:

Louis C.K. regrets likening Trump to Hitler:

Is Trump leading the country the same way he tried to run his businesses?