This could play out in a myriad of ways. Here are 13 unknowns at this hour:
1. Does the president plan to deploy more than just Tomahawks?
Trump described the strike as “targeted” during a three-minute address from Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting with the leader of China. “It is in the vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” he said.
At a briefing for reporters afterward, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described it as a “proportional” response. National security adviser H.R. McMaster emphasized efforts to minimize the risks of accidentally breaching a supply of sarin nerve agent.
The attack also involved only missiles that can be launched from Navy destroyers up to 1,000 miles away from the target. Fighter planes would have had to contend with Syrian air defenses and potentially more advanced types of surface-to-air missiles provided by Russia. These might have put the lives of U.S. pilots in danger. The missiles have been used successfully since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but our Checkpoint blog notes that Tomahawks also have less explosive yield than larger bombs carried by manned aircraft.
2. Does Trump fully grasp the risks he has just taken?
“Within the administration, some officials urged immediate action against Assad, warning against what one described as ‘paralysis through analysis.’ But others were concerned about second- and third-order effects,” according to Pentagon reporters Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “The attack may put hundreds of American troops now stationed in Syria in greater danger. They are advising local forces in advance of a major assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.”
Launching missiles was the easy part. “The big problem is what comes next,” writes Greg Jaffe. “The military had been preparing options for a strike against [Assad] since well before 2013, when the Syrian dictator killed more than 1,000 of his own people in a devastating nerve gas attack. The biggest difference between when Barack Obama last threatened airstrikes against Assad and today is that the risks of widening the conflict are much greater. … Today, Russian troops are intermingled with Syrian forces, and any strike on a Syrian military target could also produce Russian military casualties.”
3. What is Trump’s goal with intervention? No one from the administration has yet articulated what they want the end game to be. Just last week, Tillerson said the Syrian people would decide the fate of Assad. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said removing Assad from power was no longer a priority. White House press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this week defended that position by saying it’s necessary to accept the “political reality” on the ground.
At his briefing last night, Tillerson confusingly warned against reading too much into the missile attack. “This clearly indicates the president is willing to take decisive action when called for,” the secretary said. “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.” What exactly does he mean by that? Is it still not a U.S. priority to take out Assad? Spicer cut off questioning before anyone could follow up.
4. What does this mean for the U.S. fight against ISIS? As Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, put it: “Trump has said repeatedly that his objective in Syria is to defeat ISIS. Last night's strike was aimed at a different objective. President Trump needs to articulate a coherent strategy for dealing with this complex conflict, because the consequences of a misstep are grave.”
5. How do the strikes impact Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin?
Russia retaliated this morning by pulling out of an agreement to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft operating over Syria. “The Kremlin’s decision to suspend the 2015 memorandum of understanding on the air operations immediately raised tensions in the skies over Syria,” David Filipov reports from Moscow. “Putin’s spokesman said the risk of confrontation between aerial assets of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS and Russia has ‘significantly increased.’”
Though unclear on the broader strategy, Tillerson had tough words for Russia at Mar-a-Lago last night. He recalled the 2013 agreement with Syria to hand over its chemical stockpile, which called for Russia to monitor that Assad not cheat. “Clearly, Russia has failed in its responsibility on that commitment. Either Russia has been complicit or has been incompetent on its ability to deliver,” said Tillerson, who was already scheduled to visit Moscow next week.
Despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed the Syrian government has no chemical weapons. He also said Putin sees the missile launches as an attempt to distract attention from the heavy civilian casualties caused by the U.S.-backed offensive to capture Mosul from ISIS.
A direct confrontation with Russia, even if accidental, is now more likely. This back-and-forth could prompt Trump to recalibrate his position toward Putin, potentially taking a more aggressive posture. The U.S. intervention, on the other, might also make Russia more willing to negotiate a deal to end the civil war and remove Assad. You never know.
6. Will Iran wade more deeply into the Syrian conflict now? Along with Russia, Tehran has long backed Assad and denounced the U.S. airstrikes. “The Shiite theocracy’s state news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman describing the attacks as ‘dangerous, destructive and a violation of international laws to use it as an excuse to take unilateral actions,’” Sudarsan Raghavan reports from Cairo. The question is what they do about it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the bombings from Jerusalem, naturally, as did the Saudis in Riyadh and the Turkish president’s spokesman in Istanbul.
In Europe, despite their frosty relationships with the new U.S. president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande backed Trump’s actions. Britain also offered backing but said it would not participate if asked. (In 2013, the House of Commons blocked a request from David Cameron to support the U.S. effort.)
7. Will the U.S. Congress vote to authorize force?
Nancy Pelosi put out a press release this morning calling on Speaker Paul Ryan to cancel the Easter recess and call the House back into session to debate an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” for the action taken in Syria. Several rank-and-file Democrats joined her.
Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong responded that there are no changes to the schedule. She pointed to Ryan's statement last night. “This action was appropriate and just,” the speaker said.
Mitch McConnell, also offering support for Trump’s decision, scheduled a briefing for all 100 senators on the attack later today. Aides say the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, will speak at the closed-door session.
Several prominent Republican senators called for Congress to take up the issue immediately:
- Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah): “If the United States is to increase our use of military force in Syria, we should follow the Constitution and seek the proper authorization from Congress. President Trump should make his case in front of the American people and allow their elected representatives to debate the benefits and risks of further Middle East intervention to our national security interests. I stand ready to stay in Washington, or come back to Washington, in order to properly consider any further military action and the national security interests of the American people.”
- Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): "While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked. The President needs Congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution, and I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate. Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer and Syria will be no different."
- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): “Any military action in Syria must be justified as protecting the vital national security interests of America … and I look forward to our Commander-in-Chief making the case to Congress and the American people how we should do so in the days ahead.”
- Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.): “The president should propose to Congress a comprehensive strategy to protect American interests from a humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize our regional allies and create vacuums for jihadi sanctuaries."
Several House Republicans expressed a similar position:
Senate Democrats also want to take up the issue. This has long been a top issue for Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic nominee for vice president, and he reiterated that:
Many on both sides are pointing to these Trump tweets from four years ago, when he insisted Obama go to Congress before striking Syria:
8. How many Democrats give air cover to Trump? There’s been reflective, knee-jerk opposition from the left to pretty much everything Trump has done since he took office in January, but this is war. Will some leaders of the opposition rally around the flag and the commander in chief?
Hillary Clinton supported a no-fly zone over Syria during the campaign last year, putting her in a more hawkish place than President Barack Obama. Speaking in New York yesterday, she called on Trump to take out Assad’s air force. "Assad has an air force, and that air force is the cause of most of these civilian deaths as we have seen over the years and as we saw again in the last few days," the former secretary of said at a "Women in the World" summit, per CNN. "And I really believe that we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them." She added that if she were in power, she would tell Russia they were either “with us or against us” on the no-fly zone. "It is time," she said, "the Russians were afraid of us because we were going to stand up for the rights, the human rights, the dignity and the future of the Syrian people."
Pelosi, despite calling for recess to be canceled, described the strike as “a proportional response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons.” She said she is mostly worried about escalation from here/
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor this morning: “Making sure that Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do. It is now incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a coherent strategy and consult with Congress.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 in Senate Democratic leadership, also offered measured support: “My preliminary briefing by the White House indicated that this was a measured response to the Syrian nerve gas atrocity. Any further action will require close scrutiny by Congress, and any escalation beyond airstrikes or missile strikes will require engaging the American people in that decision.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection next year, also offered support:
9. How many conservatives who opposed Obama’s effort to bomb Syria now support Trump doing the same? How will they justify their flip-flops?
Sen. Marco Rubio voted against authorizing the U.S. to take action against Assad four years ago. He’s defended his vote by saying, Obama "was proposing what they called pinprick strikes, basically a symbolic strike to send a message, but not backed up by a clear plan.”
Last night, the Florida senator praised Trump for what could arguably be called a pinprick strike. “Tonight's actions show the days of being able to attack with impunity when it comes to Assad are over," Rubio said on CNN.
About 100 House Republicans signed a letter in the summer of 2013 that suggested it would be unconstitutional for Obama to order any military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons without getting congressional approval first. Politico’s Kyle Cheney has filled his Twitter timeline with examples of GOP lawmakers who signed that letter but now praise Trump for being decisive:
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said this of Obama’s effort in 2013:
He reacted this way last night:
Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) said this in 2013:
And this last night:
10. How effectively will Trump sell his own reversal on airstrikes? The president has said seeing images of lifeless children galvanized him to change his mind about Syria. But there were painfully similar, horrifying photos three years ago as he tweeted these messages:
11. Was the president really a hawk in dove’s clothing all along?
“Trump abruptly sheds his noninterventionist façade” is how Aaron Blake wrote up last night’s news. “It's likely that the noninterventionist promises Trump made during the campaign helped him by allaying some of the greatest fears about making him president and commander in chief. Arguably his biggest liability was that people — even many supporters — believed he lacked the proper temperament to be president. The prospect of the hotheaded, itchy-Twitter-fingered reality TV star having access to the nuclear codes was an attack ad that wrote itself. But Trump's promises to stay out of the Middle East and focus on the homeland mitigated that line of attack. Voters were led to believe his foreign policy wouldn't be on the same hair trigger that everything else about him seemed to be, and it gave them license to instead focus on what a businessman president could do for the economy. Yet here we are. Less than three months into his presidency, Trump has now responded to a not-unprecedented set of circumstances in Syria with an unprecedented degree of force and provocation.”
From the former CIA officer who ran for president as a conservative alternative to Trump last year:
A good question from a Post foreign affairs columnist:
12. Will some of Trump’s diehard supporters from the fever swamps of the alt-right turn on him because of Syria?
“Across the Internet, an alternative take on the horrific attack … has begun to spread,” Adam Taylor reports. “It was a ‘false flag,’ the theory goes, designed to trick Trump into intervening more forcefully in the Syrian war. Those spreading this theory are often closely linked to the ‘alt-right,’ a small, far right movement whose members are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view. One of the most notorious figures associated with the movement, Mike Cernovich, posted tweets on Wednesday claiming that the gut-wrenching footage of victims of the attack had been faked. Cernovich's messages about Syria have found an audience. They have been retweeted several thousand times by his 245,000 followers — even though the California-based Internet personality acknowledged that he didn't know much about the situation. … Just in the past week, both Donald Trump Jr. and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway have praised Cernovich — Trump's son suggested that Cernovich should win a Pulitzer.”
InfoWars and WikiLeaks, which have boosted Trump, are also getting in on the fringe and unfounded conspiracy theories that this was all staged to trick Trump into going to war in the Middle East.
This guy works with InfoWars, the site run by Alex Jones:
Several other well-known Trump allies are publicly expressing frustration:
Nigel Farage, the champion of Brexit who traveled the country with Trump during the campaign, spoke out against Trump’s first major military decision. Perhaps Farage will turn out to be a bigger fan of Putin, whose propaganda television network RT he often appears on, than Trump:
13. Finally, what impact, if any, will military intervention have on the debate about Trump’s refugee ban?
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically,” Trump said in his three-minute speech last night. “As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”
Asked after the speech whether the White House approach to the refugee crisis will change because of the military action, the national security adviser replied: “No, that wasn't discussed as any part of the deliberations.”
Many Democrats are focusing on the refugee ban as they react to the missile strikes. “President Assad's vicious brutality demands a response. But … any strategy that ignores the refugees fleeing this unimaginable terror is a half-step at best,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.). Another member of the Bay State delegation added:
Hollywood celebrities have zeroed in on the refugees, as well:
Mr. Sulu from Star Trek:
The star of the musical group Fifth Harmony:
And the host of “The Daily Show”:
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:
-- A stolen truck plowed into a department store Friday in central Stockholm, killing at least three people and touching off a major manhunt after what the country’s prime minister described as a likely terrorist attack. From Griff Witte and Heba Habib: “Police said the driver apparently escaped and was the subject of a rapidly widening search. Heavily armed officers patrolled the streets and police helicopters buzzed overhead. Authorities also imposed sweeping security measures, including closing off streets and shutting down the city’s transit system in lockdown scenes recalling recent terrorist strikes in London and St. Petersburg. Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Lofven, said the immediate indications suggested ‘an act of terrorism.’”
-- U.S. hiring slowed in March, with the economy adding just 98,000 jobs, according to new Labor Department reports. It’s the lowest gain in nearly a decade and down from 219,000 in February. Ana Swanson reports: “Scott Anderson, chief economist of Bank of the West, called the report a ‘bit of a disappointment,’ but added ‘I think it’s more of a blip than a start of a new trend.’ Anderson said that winter storms could have subtracted as many as 60,000 jobs from March payrolls, especially in weather-sensitive industries like construction, retail and leisure and hospitality. [Meanwhile], the unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent from 4.7 percent in February, while the broadest measure of unemployment -- which counts so-called discouraged workers who have given up looking for work, as well as those who are employed part-time but would like to be full time -- also fell sharply, to 8.9 percent.” (Read more here.)
-- President Trump’s company and D.C. chef José Andrés have settled a nearly two-year-old legal dispute stemming from the chef’s decision to shelve plans to open a restaurant in Trump’s D.C. hotel following Trump’s controversial immigration rhetoric. The Trump Organization, now run by Trump’s adult sons Donald Jr. and Eric, issued a joint statement with the chef’s firm, ThinkFoodGroup, Friday morning. Terms were not disclosed and spokespersons for both companies declined to comment. (Jonathan O’Connell)
-- Twitter filed a lawsuit last night to block an order from the Department of Homeland Security that seeks to reveal the user of an account who has been critical of the Trump administration's immigration policies. Tweets from the account -- @ALT_uscis -- indicate that it is run by someone who is an employee of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Free speech advocates said the DHS order appeared to be the first time the government has attempted to use its powers to expose an anonymous critic -- a development that, if successful, would have a "grave chilling effect on the speech of that account" as well as other accounts critical of the U.S. government, Twitter said. (Hayley Tsukayama)
GET SMART FAST:
- Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen disclosed that the information of up to 100,000 taxpayers may have been stolen in a security breach of an online tool used to apply for federal student aid. Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, Koskinen said the IRS identified suspicious activity in the files of people who were using a “data retrieval tool” as they filled out the FAFSA form. (Danielle Douglas-Gabriel)
- The U.S. Postal Service released a report showing 6,755 postal employees were attacked by dogs in the 2016 calendar year — a jump of more than 200 from the year before and the highest number recorded in three decades. The figures were published in advance of National Dog Bite Prevention Week (yes, that exists). The proliferation of online shopping may be a factor. (Derek Hawkins)
- Russian investigators said they have arrested eight possible accomplices in the St. Petersburg subway attack that killed 14 and wounded dozens more, and a Russian news agency reported that the suspected bomber may have trained with the Islamic State in Syria. (David Filipov and Andrew Roth)
- Tens of thousands of Venezuelans flooded a main highway in the capital of Caracas yesterday in the latest protest over what opponents consider an attempt by embattled socialist President Nicolás Maduro to seize power from the legislature and further sideline the opposition. What began as a peaceful demonstration turned violent in the afternoon, as soldiers used tear gas and water hoses to disperse crowds and protesters hurled rocks. (Mariana Zuñiga and Joshua Partlow)
- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his troops to occupy islands and reefs in the disputed South China Sea, potentially opening a new rift with Beijing. He said his military will “build structures” on the contested islands. (Emily Rauhala)
- A 55-year-old man transporting cattle to a dairy was yanked from his vehicle and beaten to death by a group of 200 Hindu “cow protection” vigilantes in India. Video footage shows the man and several of his helpers curled up on the side of the road as they were kicked and whipped repeatedly with metal rods. (New York Times)
- Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders will rally together in at least five states later this month, a show of unity after Perez defeated Sanders’s preferred candidate in the race for DNC chairman. (David Weigel)
- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will speak about the importance of “a free and independent press” at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner that Trump is skipping. (Poynter)
- Flight turbulence could increase significantly under climate change, according to a new study from the University of Reading. Why? An increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations is changing the jet stream over the North Atlantic flight corridor. (Chelsea Harvey)
- Dozens of passengers were enjoying themselves on a whale-watching expedition in the Caribbean when a small fishing boat sailed by and speared two orcas with rifle-powered harpoons. The event distressed passengers and underscored a deeper clash in worldviews between tourists horrified by the whale killing and local “fisherfolk” who eke out an existence by killing things that live in the ocean. (Cleve R. Wootson Jr.)
- A New Jersey student was accepted to Stanford after he used one of his admissions essays to simply type “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times. (Susan Svrluga)
- The British Supreme Court ruled that a man who took his daughter out of school without permission for a trip to Disney World has broken the law, ordering he pay a fine for causing his six-year-old to miss lessons without “valid reason.” The ruling caps months of debate in the U.K., pitting parental freedoms against stiff truancy laws. (New York Times)
FIVE FRESH STORIES ON WEST WING INTRIGUE:
-- “Bannon wants a war on Washington. Now he’s part of one inside the White House,” by Ashley Parker, Robert Costa and Abby Phillip: “Stephen K. Bannon — the combative architect of the nationalistic strategy that delivered President Trump to the White House — now finds himself losing ground in an internecine battle within the West Wing that pits the ‘Bannonites’ against a growing and powerful faction of centrist financiers led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Less than 100 days into Trump’s chaotic presidency, the White House is splintering over policy issues ranging from taxes to trade. The daily tumult has created an atmosphere of tension and panic around the president, leaving aides fearing for their jobs and cleaving former allies into rivals sniping at one another in the media. The infighting spilled into full view this week after Trump removed Bannon from the National Security Council’s ‘principals committee.’”
Ashley, Bob and Abby – with assists from Tom Hamburger, Ros Helderman and Damian Paletta – interviewed more than 20 White House officials and people close to those in the administration for the story. Some choice nuggets from their piece:
“Fairly or unfairly, Bannon has borne the blame for several specific policy and political failures, including the scattershot drafting and implementation of Trump’s first travel ban and the strategy and approach to dealing with the conservative House Freedom Caucus. The clash over control of a pro-Trump outside group also pitted Bannon, Republican super-donor Rebekah Mercer and her father, Robert, against Kushner. … And Bannon has felt the brunt of general frustrations surrounding the security council. In the early days of the administration, he elevated himself, without Trump’s knowledge, to the principals committee, a move that infuriated the president. But the ultimate argument against him, said one person with knowledge of the situation, is that ‘Bannon isn’t making ‘Dad’ look good.’”
“Bannon and his populist allies view Kushner’s circle with growing suspicion, worrying aloud that the group — whom they dismiss as ‘the Democrats,’ ‘the New Yorkers’ or, simply, ‘Goldman’ — are pushing Trump in a ‘Democrat Lite’ direction. Kushner’s allies, meanwhile, label Bannon’s crowd as ‘the Bannonites,’ ‘the Nationalists’ or ‘Breitbart.’”
“Bannon, allies said, still has the president’s ear, especially on key issues such as immigration, where he and Trump are in a complete ‘mind meld.’ But the chief strategist has struggled to adjust to the more regimented mores of the White House. One friend said he hates attending meetings, bemoans the need to frequently wear suits, and finds the government bureaucracy stifling. While living in Los Angeles, Bannon would sometimes participate in Breitbart conference calls before showering and in a T-shirt or bathrobe.”
“Some of those who resent Kushner’s rising power have compared him to Icarus, the youth in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and melted his wings. But because Kushner holds so much clout, many of his rivals fear bad-mouthing him and train their ire on his deputies instead. ‘When you complain about Gary or Dina, you’re really complaining about Jared and what he’s doing, because you’re not able to complain about Jared around here,’ said one senior White House official. … Another administration official warned that Bannon was playing “a dangerous game” because it is “not a smart strategy to go up against the president and his family. That’s a game Steve will never win.’”
-- Bannon uses other names for Kushner, as well. “He has called the president’s son-in-law a ‘cuck’ and a ‘globalist’ … according to several Trump administration officials," The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng reports. "One official said Bannon has lately complained about Kushner trying to ‘shiv him and push him out the door’ and likened him to a fifth column in the White House.”
-- The New York Times also looks at the Bannon vs. Kushner tensions on their front page. From Maggie Haberman, Jeremy Peters and Peter Baker: Thick with tension, the conversation this week between Bannon and Kushner had deteriorated to the point of breakdown. “Finally, Mr. Bannon identified why they could not compromise. ‘Here’s the reason there’s no middle ground,’ Mr. Bannon growled. ‘You’re a Democrat.’ … At different moments, Mr. Trump has given conflicting impressions of his preferences. He has privately scorned the coverage of Mr. Kushner’s recent high-profile trip to Iraq, according to two people who spoke with him, and questioned the need for his son-in-law’s newly created office to overhaul the government. At other points, he has been dismissive of Mr. Bannon, curtly telling him he is not needed at this meeting or that…
“Although they were once at odds and still come from vastly different vantage points, Mr. Bannon has also maintained an alliance of convenience lately with Reince Priebus, the chief of staff closely associated with the Republican Party establishment. In recent weeks, as Mr. Bannon has felt increasingly frustrated, Mr. Priebus has several times bolstered the chief strategist in discussions with the president, according to people with direct knowledge of the talks. In turn, Mr. Bannon has gone out of his way to praise his onetime rival’s performance…
“Mr. Priebus remains in a hot spot. Mr. Trump is fond of asking visitors, ‘How do you think Reince is doing?’ and he expressed anger at the collapse of the health care overhaul, telling a longtime associate last week that he believed that Mr. Priebus was partly to blame.”
-- Trump is now considering a broad shakeup that could include the replacement of Priebus and the departure of Bannon, aides and advisers tell Axios’s Mike Allen this morning: “A top aide to Trump said he's contemplating major changes, but that the situation is very fluid and the timing uncertain: ‘Things are happening, but it's very unclear the president's willing to pull that trigger.’” Unnamed insiders tell Mike that there are four people on the short list to replace Reince as chief of staff:
- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
- Wayne Berman of Blackstone Group, who was an Assistant Secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush
- David Urban, a former chief of staff to the late Arlen Specter who helped Trump carry Pennsylvania
- Gary Cohn, Trump's economic adviser and the former president of Goldman Sachs
-- “Inside the White House, paranoia and unrest among top staff,” by CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Gloria Borger, Jamie Gangel, Jeff Zeleny and Jim Acosta: “In the Trump White House, top aides obsess over face time with the President, often joining him for meetings rather than working on a parallel track to execute his agenda. On a given day, the line outside Trump's Oval Office can stretch to dozens of people, including aides, diplomats and outside visitors -- some scheduled to meet with the President and others brought in on a whim."
-- The U.S. Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch to serve on the Supreme Court, voting 54-45. He is expected to be sworn-in during the coming days, allowing him to join the high court for the final weeks of its term. (Ed O'Keefe and Robert Barnes)
-- Republicans cleared the way for Gorsuch yesterday by changing the rules of the Senate. From Ed O’Keefe and Sean Sullivan: “The long-anticipated rules change now means that all presidential nominees for executive branch positions and the federal courts need only a simple-majority vote to be confirmed by senators. The GOP decision to ram through the rules change is also likely to further divide an increasingly partisan Senate.”
This is a huge political win for Mitch McConnell: “As he left the Senate chamber, the usually reserved McConnell flashed a bit of showmanship — he high-fived some colleagues, awkwardly embraced Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and gave a thumbs-up to photographers.”
There is no going back. The Rubicon has been crossed. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), among other Democrats, signaled that they would not necessarily support restoring Senate traditions if they retake control of the chamber. “We can’t unilaterally disarm,” he said.
-- “The Gorsuch vote makes the McConnell-Schumer relationship look bad. It might get better,” by Paul Kane: Chuck Schumer rattled off questions to the chamber’s presiding officer before yesterday’s rule change, designed to embarrass Republicans. A few feet to his right, McConnell sat silently, giggling to himself at one point. “As relationships go, the new Democratic leader and the longtime GOP leader have gotten off to one of the worst starts of the last 40 years in the Senate. Several Democrats, including Schumer, even voted against the confirmation of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. ‘If they were looking for 10 different ways to get off to a bad start, this would be 11,’ Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close friend to both leaders, said after Thursday’s confrontation.”
But, but, but: “Alexander, along with several other senators and senior advisers, suggested that the two leaders still have the chance to build the kind of relationship that can salvage some of the glory the Senate lost over the past decade of partisan gamesmanship. There’s little time before their first big test, just four weeks away, when the legislation that funds the government is set to expire. As they’ve publicly fought over Gorsuch, McConnell and Schumer have privately led negotiations aiming for a three-way deal among House leaders and Trump officials for a large bipartisan funding outline for the rest of 2018. The leaders had a productive face-to-face meeting this week, according to one Senate aide, and Alexander said he is optimistic that deal will be completed this month.”
THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:
-- The C.I.A. told senior lawmakers in classified briefings last summer that it had evidence of a Russian effort to help elect Trump as president -- a finding that did not emerge publicly until after his victory months later. The New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau reports: “The briefings indicate that intelligence officials had evidence of Russia’s intentions to help Mr. Trump much earlier in the presidential campaign than previously thought. The briefings also reveal a critical split last summer between the C.I.A. and counterparts at the F.B.I., where a number of senior officials continued to believe through last fall that Russia’s cyberattacks were aimed only at disrupting America’s political system, and not at getting Mr. Trump elected … The former officials said that in late August — 10 weeks before the election — John O. Brennan, then the C.I.A. director, was so concerned about increasing evidence of Russia’s election meddling that he began a series of urgent, individual briefings for eight top members of Congress, some of them on secure phone lines while they were on their summer break…
“In the August briefing … Mr. Brennan indicated that the C.I.A., focused on foreign intelligence, was limited in its legal ability to investigate possible connections to Mr. Trump. The officials said Mr. Brennan told [Harry Reid] that the F.B.I., in charge of domestic intelligence, would have to lead the way. Days later, Mr. Reid wrote [James Comey]. In his letter, the senator … said it was crucial for the F.B.I. to ‘use every resource available’ to conduct an investigation. … Some intelligence officials were wary of pushing too aggressively before the election with questions about possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign because of concerns it might be seen as an improper political attempt to help Mrs. Clinton.”
-- “Kushner Omitted Meeting With Russians on Security Clearance Forms,” by the New York Times: “When Jared Kushner … sought the top-secret security clearance that would give him access to some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, he was required to disclose all encounters with foreign government officials over the last seven years. But Mr. Kushner did not mention dozens of contacts with foreign leaders or officials in recent months. They include a December meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, and one with the head of a Russian state-owned bank, Vnesheconombank, arranged at Mr. Kislyak’s behest. The omissions, which Mr. Kushner’s lawyer called an error, are particularly sensitive given the congressional and F.B.I. investigations into contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates.”
-- With Devin Nunes temporarily stepping as House Intelligence chairman so an ethics investigation can run its course, the Russia investigation will now fall to Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Tex). The 68-year-old also serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. From Karoun Demirjian: “In a brief interview, Conaway pledged to work ‘with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle’ to complete the Russia probe. But Conaway is also a Trump supporter, and he has on various occasions sought to sow doubt about the intelligence community’s conviction that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections to help Trump’s candidacy. … In the past, Conaway has also said that if Congress wants to probe foreign interference in the 2016 election, it should also look into how ‘Harry Reid and the Democrats brought in Mexican soap opera stars, singers and entertainers who had immense influence’ to help get out the vote in Las Vegas.” (The Dallas Morning News published a Conaway profile this morning.)
Also getting more authority with Nunes sidelined is Trey Gowdy, another Intelligence Committee member who has drawn accusations from Democrats of letting partisanship seep into investigations. That was particularly the case when the South Carolina congressman chaired the Benghazi select committee. “Gowdy also sits on the House Ethics Committee, which is now investigating Nunes over allegations he may have disclosed classified information against House rules,” Karoun notes.
THE CHINA SUMMIT CONTINUES:
-- Trump welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago estate, kicking off a two-day summit that Rex Tillerson said would include “very frank discussions” over North Korea and trade. From David Nakamura: “Speaking to reporters after greeting Xi at the airport, Tillerson said the U.S. side would press the Chinese delegation to ‘find ways to exercise influence on North Korea’s actions to dismantle their nuclear weapons and their missile technology program.’ ‘China can be part of a new strategy to end North Korea’s reckless behavior and ensure security, stability and economic prosperity in Northeast Asia,’ Tillerson added. Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, greeted Xi with a handshake as the Chinese leader and his wife, Peng Liyuan, arrived at the resort for a series of bilateral talks, and a fancy opening night dinner with Trump and his top aides. Trump arrived aboard Air Force One shortly after Xi. While flying, Trump told reporters on the plane that he believes “China will be stepping up” to deal more firmly with Pyongyang.”
-- Wall Street Journal, “Trump Lacks Staff for Trade Talks With China,” by William Mauldin: “Vacancies in key government positions will make it harder for Trump to delve very deeply in trade issues with his Chinese counterpart as the two meet … The biggest hole in Mr. Trump’s trade team is his pick for U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer. The Senate Finance Committee has signaled it will move on his nomination after the Easter recess. … Also, no one has been nominated for three deputy trade representative positions and two other senior roles, for agriculture and intellectual property, are still unfilled. Another nominee awaiting confirmation is Mr. Trump’s pick for Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue. China has lifted an outright ban on American beef, but lawmakers say there are still barriers keeping American beef out of the country. … Mr. Trump signaled early on that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will play a key role in trade, but the White House hasn’t named key Commerce undersecretaries to handle international trade and industry security—officials who would more directly oversee trade cases against China and the export of sensitive technology.”
THE KING OF DEBT:
-- Trump, who has driven several companies into bankruptcy by over-leveraging himself, is bringing the same mentality to the federal government. He is now considering borrowing “much more” than $300 billion to finance his infrastructure plan -- a move that would come as a major break from his campaign pledge to attract large amounts of private money to finance the upgrades to roads, bridges, ports and other things. Damian Paletta and Max Ehrenfreund report: “Trump’s new belief is that the U.S. can borrow money so cheaply now because of low interest rates that it makes sense to issue more debt to borrow the money. … He also said that an infrastructure arrangement that includes public money with private money ‘can be very expensive.’ ‘We are borrowing very inexpensively,’ Trump [said]. ‘When you can borrow so inexpensively, you don’t have to do the public/private thing.’ When asked if the total U.S. commitment could be $200 billion or $300 billion, he answered quickly, ‘No. More than that. Much more than that.’”
-- “Trump asked African Americans what they had to lose. For this rural Kentucky community, the answer is tangible,” by Jose A. DelReal: “Just 3 percent of the town’s population is African American, and many of them live along the hilly streets of this particularly frayed neighborhood, where the houses collapsing on their wood frames betray the rural county’s deep poverty. On the campaign trail, Trump had asked African Americans what they had to lose if they voted for him. Here, that question has tangible answers. Jonikka Garrett … said she believes many of Trump’s critics have gloated that rural Americans voted for Trump only to now see his administration release a budget that would hurt rural voters particularly hard — and ignoring the reality that one-fifth of rural Americans are Minorites who probably did not support the president. ‘They’re saying, ‘Those people are getting what they deserve.’ And I don’t think they’re taking into account that a lot of people here didn’t vote for him, and we’re suffering, too,’ said Garrett, 37. ‘Personally, I think it’s about being okay with taking another person’s assistance without realizing they’re going to take away yours as well.’”
-- House Republican leaders moved to modify their stalled health-care bill Thursday after Mike Pence pressured them to show progress before the two week Easter recess. The White House told Paul Ryan that Trump needs to score a “short-term win” to keep momentum on the legislation and stop repeal efforts from fizzling. Paige Winfield Cunningham, Juliet Eilperin and Mike DeBonis report: “A House aide said Pence and other White House officials painted a ‘dire’ political picture of what would happen if Republicans fail to act on health care. Ryan also met briefly with Trump ... On Thursday morning, [Ryan] invited more than 20 fellow Republicans to his weekly news conference to unveil an amendment in what appeared to be an effort to show progress toward an accord. ‘This brings us closer to the final agreement that we all want to achieve,’ Ryan said, later adding that it was ‘a step in the right direction.’”
The amendment that the Rules Committee approved Thursday afternoon on a party-line vote would set up a federal insurance pool for those with serious and expensive medical conditions. The idea is to subsidize coverage for patients with preexisting conditions in order to lower premiums for healthier patients. Sean Spicer yesterday described the renewed health-care talks as “constructive”: “The amendment that Speaker Ryan talked about putting forward in the rules committee is something that shows tremendous progress by the team. As soon as we get to 215 (votes), we’ll let you know.”
Huge roadblocks remain. Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows said Thursday that one path to get the “majority, if not the entire Freedom Caucus” to vote for the bill is by extending the ability for states to apply for waivers to key ACA insurance mandates. But there is little appetite for doing that elsewhere in the House GOP. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said rolling back such mandates would be a “nonstarter.” “It goes counter to the president’s promises,” he said. “It goes counter to the promises of more than 200 members of the House.”
-- Meanwhile, another state is at risk of having only one Obamacare health insurer. “Two insurers announced this week that they would pull out of Iowa's Affordable Care Act exchanges next year, raising worries that the decisions could be the leading edge of a trend,” Carolyn Y. Johnson reports. “Insurers face approaching deadlines and major uncertainties about the short-term viability of the exchanges, and beyond, because of politicians' inability thus far to move a specific repeal and replace plan forward. Aetna informed federal and state regulators that it would not offer plans in Iowa's exchange because of ‘financial risk and an uncertain outlook for the marketplace’ on Thursday. That followed the announcement Monday that Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield would also pull out of Iowa's marketplaces next year. The combination of the two exits will leave the vast majority of counties in the states with only one insurer, assuming that there are no other changes.”
-- Maryland became the first state in the nation to agree to reimburse Planned Parenthood clinics for their services if Congress defunds the organization, after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan allowed the bill to become law Thursday without his signature. (Ovetta Wiggins and Josh Hicks have more from Annapolis.)
TAN. RESTED. READY. MITT FOR SENATE?
-- “Republican leaders and high-powered donors in Utah are waging a quiet but concerted campaign to convince 83-year-old incumbent Senator Orrin Hatch not to seek reelection next year—and now, they may have found a successor. Mitt Romney, the one-time presidential nominee and leading Trump critic, is exploring a run for Hatch’s Senate seat,” McKay Coppins reports in The Atlantic. “According to six sources familiar with the situation, Romney has spent recent weeks actively discussing a potential 2018 Senate bid with a range of high-level Republicans in both Utah and Washington, and has privately signaled a growing interest in the idea. Romney, though, has made clear he would not pursue the seat without Hatch’s blessing.”
- Romney has spoken with Mitch McConnell: “According to two people with knowledge of the conversation, McConnell encouraged Romney to run if Hatch’s seat opens up, and sought to assure the former GOP presidential nominee that he would have more influence in the chamber than a typical junior senator.”
- The story quotes “two people close to Romney” saying he didn’t show a real interest in the Senate race until his longtime rival/frenemy Jon Huntsman began to consider a bid. Now Huntsman has been sidelined by being appointed ambassador to Russia.
- Romney would skate to victory if he ran. Everyone agrees.
-- “The idea of Senator Mitt Romney should scare Trump,” Aaron Blake writes on The Fix. “Romney would come in to the Senate with almost unimpeachable power to say whatever he wanted about Trump, should he choose to do so. And in our highly partisan era, it would be a completely unusual and potentially must-see political dynamic.”
O’REILLY HUNKERS DOWN:
-- “Fox News and its star host Bill O’Reilly appear to have developed a strategy in response to allegations of serial sexual harassment and the mass defections of advertisers from O’Reilly’s program: Say as little as possible,” Paul Farhi reports. “The voluble TV personality has said nothing on the air about the controversy since it broke over the weekend. Fox News has all but ignored any reporting about it in its broadcasts and on its website; its one acknowledgment was a 25-second summary on its ‘Media Buzz’ program on Sunday. It has not mentioned the advertiser reaction. Fox’s parent company, meanwhile, has confined its comments to a brief statement issued Saturday saying, in part, that it ‘takes matters of workplace behavior very seriously.’”
-- O’Reilly’s audience is sticking with him so far: “The O’Reilly Factor” attracted 3.8 million viewers Tuesday night, according to Nielsen, a 20 percent increase over the program’s ratings a week before and 19 percent more than on the same date last year, per Farhi.
-- A portion of his new book, “Old School,” is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows. A section entitled “No means no” is dedicated to sexual consent. "It would be easy to make fun of all the hoops college administrators expect their students to jump through today before they engage in any kind of intimacy," he writes. "But there's no middle ground here. It's all about the Old School tenets of respect and responsibility. No means no." (CNN)
PREET GOES PUBLIC:
-- In his first public appearance since being fired, former U.S. attorney of Manhattan Preet Bharara offered a brutal and sometimes humorous critique of Trump's administration, saying that draining "the swamp" requires more than a "slogan." Renae Merle reports from New York: "There is a swamp, a lot of the system is rigged and lots of your fellow Americans have been forgotten and have been left behind. Those are not alternative facts. That is not fake news," Bharara said during an hour-long speech at the Cooper Union last night. "But I would respectfully submit you don't drain a swamp with a slogan. You don't drain it by replacing one set of partisans with another. You don't replace muck with muck. To drain a swamp you need an Army Corps of Engineers, experts schooled in service and serious purpose, not do-nothing, say-anything neophyte opportunists who know a lot about how to bully and bluster but not so much about truth, justice and fairness."
Bharara had been asked to stay on by Trump after the election but was then fired: "I was asked to resign. I refused. I insisted on being fired and so I was," Bharara said last night. "I don’t understand why that was such a big deal. Especially to this White House. I had thought that was what Donald Trump was good at.” Asked why he was fired, Bharara said: "Beats the hell out of me."
THREE GOOD READS ON HOW MOSCOW OPERATES:
-- “Putin’s ex-wife returns to the spotlight with a dashing young husband and a fancy French villa,” by Adam Taylor: “Lyudmila Putin was the wife of Vladimir Putin for three decades. They [married in 1983] and moved to East Germany … where her husband was a KGB spy. But as Vladimir [began his reign] in Moscow, Lyudmila was seen less and less in public. Wild rumors in the Russian press suggested that he had packed her off to a monastery. Since then, Russians have heard little about Lyudmila … But many ordinary citizens remained fascinated by her, eager to know what happened to the woman who may have gotten closer to Putin than anyone else. Now, almost four years later, details about Lyudmila’s new life are emerging. And rather than turning up at a remote monastery, she appears to be planning a lavish life at a European villa, with a new husband 20 years her junior. These new details offer not only a glimpse into the notoriously private world of Putin’s family, barely acknowledged in official accounts and the subject of tabloid gossip, but also a hint of the wealth that critics say the Russian president and those in his inner circle have acquired over recent years.”
-- “Russian media wrongly accused a Muslim man of the St. Petersburg bombing. It nearly ruined his life,” by Andrew Roth: “For several hours, the face of the St. Petersburg suicide bomber was pretty much the one many Russians expected it to be: a young man with a long, thick beard, wearing a black overcoat and the traditional prayer cap of a pious Muslim. TV news stations and Russian online sites [rushed to] broadcast grainy security footage of the man … Except he wasn’t the terrorist. It was Ilyas Nikitin … a former army captain who fought Islamic separatists as a Russian officer in Chechnya and later converted to Islam. ‘This case has deeply complicated my life,’ Nikitin [said]. … Since the bombing, he said, he had been pulled off a flight because other passengers recognized him as the suspected bomber and was told he could lose his job because of the investigation. The story is a cautionary tale of the speed with which digital sleuthing, instant Twitter news updates, and racial profiling can yield devastating consequences for their targets. For journalists, the Internet has proven to be a quick source of vetted information and expert collaboration — but it also has the potential to destroy lives.”
-- Buzzfeed, “A Network Of Russian-Language News Sites Is Secretly Owned By The Kremlin, Investigation Finds,” by Miriam Elder: “A network of Russian language news sites based in the Baltics is secretly owned by the Kremlin-owned holding that runs Russia Today and Sputnik, an investigation by Re:Baltica, a Latvian outlet, has found. The investigation showed that Baltnews, a network of sites targeting the Russian speaking minority in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, was actually owned by Rossiya Segodnya, the holding company created in November 2014 to run a host of Kremlin-owned news outlets. The investigation … said Rossiya Segodnya’s ownership was ‘obscured by a chain of owners, seemingly designed to make it appear as though Baltnews arose from local organizations.’ [The investigation] found that the outlets’ websites are registered to a [Dutch] company called Media Capital Holding B.V. … [which in turn] is owned by a Russian-registered company … which in turn is owned by the Russian newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti. That newspaper is itself owned by … a state-owned newswire that falls under the umbrella of Rossiya Segodnya.” The Baltic states remain on high alert for Russian meddling, as the Kremlin develops and ever-more confrontational foreign policy.
SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:
Meanwhile, people continued to mock Jared Kushner's trip to Iraq:
Donald Trump Jr. weighed in on the nuclear option:
He was responding to this tweet from Chuck Schumer:
Journalists remembered comedian Don Rickles, who died at 90 (Read Matt Schudel's obituary here):
Lots of people took pictures with Hillary Clinton last night:
At 10 a.m., Trump is scheduled to lead an expanded bilateral meeting with Xi Jinping. At noon, the leaders have a working lunch.
This morning, Mike Pence will participate in a phone call with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine. Later in the day, the Vice President will travel to the Capitol to preside in the Senate during the confirmation vote of Neil Gorsuch to serve as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
The Senate will confirm Gorsuch. Both chambers leave town today for Easter recess.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
“I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency,” Trump said on Air Force One, wrongly referring to the 11 weeks he has been in office.
NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:
-- It will be cool and windy today, cold tonight and then turn warmer this weekend. “After this small shock of cooler, drier air, this weekend is looking comfortable overall,” the Capital Weather Gang forecasts. “Highs in the 80s are possible next week!”
-- You need to earn $80,273 per year to live “comfortably” in D.C., according to an annual report from GoBankingRate. (Justin Wm. Moyer looks at their methodology.)
-- Ed Gillespie, a former Washington lobbyist running for governor of Virginia, vowed to ban the personal use of campaign funds and to slow the “revolving door” between government service and the lucrative world of lobbying. From Laura Vozzella: “Gillespie made those promises at a news conference on Richmond’s Capitol Square, where the GOP-controlled legislature has repeatedly killed bills intended to prevent candidates from using political cash for personal expenses. Since a gifts scandal engulfed former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) in 2013, Virginia’s legislature has moved to tighten the state’s notoriously lax ethics and campaign-finance rules year after year. But loopholes remain. And the Republicans who control both chambers in Richmond have been flatly opposed to bans on personal use, arguing that restrictions would trip up even honest public servants. Gillespie’s proposals were part of a broader ethics and government-transparency plan he unveiled in the company of the outgoing and incoming speakers of Virginia’s House of Delegates — a powerful signal that Gillespie’s personal-use ban would fare better than the one Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) endorsed to no avail this year.”
-- D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration has cleared a major stumbling block in her effort to close the city’s dilapidated shelter for homeless families at the former D.C. General Hospital. Aaron C. Davis reports: “Attorneys for the city prevailed this week in zoning fights with neighbors of two of the proposed sites, winning approval to move forward with construction as early as November, although opponents could still file appeals. The development gives the District a realistic chance to close D.C. General by 2020 — six years after the disappearance of an 8-year-old girl put a spotlight on city’s emerging epidemic of family homelessness and overcrowded conditions at the District’s main shelter.”
-- D.C. police officials revoked the police powers of an officer yesterday after he was arrested in Anne Arundel County on multiple offenses, including armed robbery, assault and prostitution. Chukwuemeka Ekwonna, a 2nd District officer, has been on the force for 14 months. (Clarence Williams)
-- A District woman was charged with throwing a rock at and damaging a glass window at D.C. Superior Court, causing an estimated $50,000 in damage. Keith Alexander reports: “Prosecutors charged Tyree Nolan, 20, of no fixed address, with felony destruction of government property and domestic violence threats. Authorities say Nolan got into an altercation with another woman inside the courthouse on Wednesday during a domestic hearing involving a man who had dated both women at some point. During the hearing, court documents say, Nolan repeatedly threatened to kill the other woman, causing the boyfriend and court security officers to intervene. Neither woman knew of the other before the hearing, according to the documents. Nolan and the boyfriend have a child together. Nolan was escorted out of the courthouse by security. While outside, she picked up a rock and threw it at the glass window of the courthouse.”
-- A Southwest Washington man was charged with five counts of second-degree sexual abuse and three counts of assault in connection with the alleged assault of seven teenage girls in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Keith reports: “Authorities say Devone L. Foote, 35, walked up to a group of 13- and 14-year-old girls from California and touched their buttocks as the teens toured the museum’s butterfly exhibit. Prosecutors say Foote also pressed his groin against one of the teen’s buttocks. The girl’s chaperon reported the incident to a museum security office. Foote has been ordered to remain in D.C. jail until his next hearing.”
VIDEOS OF THE DAY:
Who's the "idiot?"
One more from Colbert:
Calling all Homeland fans:
Conan breaks it down with Wanda Sykes:
How will the Senate change after Republicans went nuclear? Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Luther Strange (R-Ala.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) offer their perspectives: