U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds up photos of victims of the Syrian chemical attack during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council last Wednesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

With Breanne Deppisch

THE BIG IDEA: Nikki Haley made news on the Sunday shows by declaring that the United States does not see a peaceful political resolution for Syria's civil war so long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power, a position that appeared to put the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at odds with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

While the differing messages highlighted the degree to which the Trump administration has still not settled on a clear strategy to deal with Assad, the Sunday show kerfuffle also underscored the former South Carolina governor’s autonomy and the power she’s asserted since taking command of the U.S. mission in New York.

The praise she subsequently received from hawkish conservatives who view Trump warily, such as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), demonstrated how Haley, herself a Trump critic during the campaign, will be a force to reckon with in coming foreign policy fights.

Tillerson, who made his Sunday show debut yesterday, has tried to avoid the press since taking office. The former ExxonMobil CEO’s aversion to the spotlight allowed Haley to seize it and develop a larger public profile.

Her comments on the Sunday shows also make clear that Haley doesn’t think she takes marching orders from Foggy Bottom.

-- Articulating support for a policy of regime change in Syria is not the first time that Haley has gone farther out on a limb than her counterparts in the administration.

  • At her confirmation hearing, she telegraphed that she’d be an independent voice by touting the value of the NATO alliance and expressing hope that Trump would come around.
  • In her first address to the U.N. Security Council, she laced into Russia. Even as Donald Trump signaled openness to working with Vladimir Putin, she declared that Crimea does not belong to Moscow and that sanctions won’t be lifted anytime soon. “We cannot trust Russia. We should never trust Russia,” Haley said unequivocally during an interview on the “Today” show.
  • She reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when Trump appeared to edge away from it.
  • She has also spoken of the need for America to show moral leadership in the world, again putting her at odds with the worldview espoused by her boss.

Last week, before it was clear Trump would order a strike on Syria, the ambassador brought poster-board-sized pictures of the victims of the chemical weapons attack to a speech at the United Nations. In a powerful eight-minute speech, as she spoke of children foaming at the mouth and being carried in the arms of desperate parents, the mother of two was the first U.S. official to publicly threaten unilateral action. “We cannot close our eyes to those pictures,” she said. “We cannot close our minds to the responsibility to act.”

Then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, joined by deputy K.T. McFarland, watch Sean Spicer's daily briefing in February. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

-- All the chaos inside the Trump administration over the past 80 days has allowed Haley to get away with the kind of freelancing that would ordinarily cause someone in her position to be rebuked. In fact, she’s been left alone. As she said on ABC the weekend before last, “The president has not once called me and said, ‘Don’t beat up on Russia.’ He has not once called me and told me what to say.”

The news broke yesterday that deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland is being pushed out of the White House. This is just the latest move by H.R. McMaster to consolidate power and purge Michael Flynn holdovers. The longtime TV talking head, who once ran unsuccessfully against Hillary Clinton for Senate in New York, will be made U.S. ambassador to Singapore to help her save face. “McFarland initially resisted but later accepted the reassignment,” Abby Phillip reports. McFarland was initially told after Flynn got ousted that she could stay on if she wanted, but McMaster was also promised that he’d have full control of his staffing. There has been tension since, and it’s finally come to a head.

McMaster, an Army lieutenant general, also restructured the National Security Council last week to remove White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon from the principals committee, as well as diminish the power of homeland security adviser Tom Bossert. It drew little notice, but as part of the shakeup, Haley became a full member of the principals committee. She was already the first Republican U.N. ambassador since Ronald Reagan was president to have full Cabinet rank.

A staggering number of top jobs at the State Department also remain unfilled, which has created a power vacuum that Haley has happily filled. More than half of the positions listed on the agency’s leadership chart are still vacant or occupied by temporary acting officials, the Huffington Post reported last week. A rumored reorganization plan has many others distracted. Trump vetoed Tillerson’s pick for deputy secretary because he had been critical during the campaign. A No. 2 has reportedly been selected but not yet formally announced.

United States decisions on crucial United Nations matters used to take shape through consultations among senior officials and experts in New York and Washington,” Somini Sengupta reported in Sunday’s New York Times. “These days, policies are drafted in Haley’s office, and sent to Washington to clear.… The policies are on everything from how to handle peacekeeping missions to what to do about United States membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council to who will be part of the delegation to the annual women’s rights meeting.”

John Bolton stands in the elevator at Trump Tower on Dec. 2. (Justin Lane/Pool via Bloomberg)

-- The hawks see Haley as a kindred spirit.

John Bolton, a hawk who was U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush, was in contention to be deputy secretary of state, but he would have struggled to clear the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because of opposition from Rand Paul. Bolton, with his distinctive white mustache, has been ubiquitous on Fox News for years. He could have been the darling of the hawks within the Trump firmament, and he may still wind up with a White House job that does not require confirmation. In the meantime, Haley has claimed that mantle.

Rubio, on ABC News yesterday, sided with Haley over Tillerson. “This idea that we’re going to get rid of ISIS and then we’ll hopefully use Assad and others to come up with a solution, it’s not going to work,” said the Florida senator, whose campaign Haley endorsed last year. “There seems to be a difference between what Ambassador Haley is saying, and what she said last night that Assad really has no future, and what I heard this morning from Secretary Tillerson. … You cannot have a stable Syria without jihadist elements on the ground with Bashar al-Assad in power. They're two sides of the same coin.”

Graham, a senator from Haley’s home state of South Carolina, also seized on Haley’s comments during his appearance on “Meet the Press.” “Ambassador Haley just said on your program, 'You'll never end the war with Assad in power,'" Graham said. “So that means regime change is now the policy of the Trump administration. That's at least what I've heard.” He celebrated this as good news.

-- Haley doesn’t talk like a diplomat, and she’s not planning to start. This has also won plaudits from many traditional conservatives. “I wear heels, but it’s not a fashion statement. It’s because if I see something wrong, I’m gonna kick ’em every single time,” the ambassador said last month at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s meeting in Washington.

Conservative WaPo blogger Jen Rubin gushed in her recap: “More than any other speaker [including Mike Pence], she endeared herself to the crowd, which gave her the heartiest applause and most ovations of the conference. … The crowd luxuriated in her heartfelt identification with the Jewish people as an Indian American and her reminder that, while she was governor, South Carolina became the first state to pass anti-BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) legislation.”

Last Friday, in the latest example of how she approaches the job differently, Haley released a one-paragraph statement calling out the Bolivians for wanting to close the Security Council meeting about the U.S. strike on Syria to the public. It quickly went viral, promoted by thought leaders like the opinion page editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post: 

A recent headline on Conservative Review blared, “‘New sheriff in town’ Nikki Haley is blowing up Obama’s lead-from-behind UN strategy.”

-- At just 45, Haley could be well positioned to take on a more senior job in the administration, perhaps succeeding Tillerson down the road. Or, now that she has foreign policy experience, she could run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

“Some say she has made her political ambitions too obvious,” Politico’s Eliana Johnson reported last week. “One former State Department official went so far as to call her current post a ‘box-checking exercise’ designed to bolster her résumé for a future presidential bid. … Some of the most important members of her political team joined her at the U.N., despite warnings from some longtime advisers that bringing them along would send the wrong message to her fellow diplomats. Her longtime pollster and strategist, Jon Lerner, who had no formal experience in foreign policy … serves as her deputy ambassador.”

Haley has also alienated some career foreign service officers by excluding them from meetings and prioritizing instead the advice she gets from political people. “Those in her inner circle meet every morning on the 21st floor of the United States mission. Career foreign service staff members are invited only as necessary,” Sengupta reported in The Times. “Several diplomats noted privately that Haley had not bothered to go around and meet most of them, and only on the highest profile subjects has she been present in the Security Council. In contrast to her predecessor, Samantha Power, Haley goes home in time for dinner with her family most days. She said she was appalled by how much overtime staff members had piled up before she arrived.”

-- But it’s clear from speaking with people in the foreign policy world that she’s playing the outside game, not the inside game. She cares less about being beloved by the diplomatic establishment than admired and respected by movement conservatives.

Significantly, Haley is as well positioned as anyone in the administration to avoid the gray cloud of scandal that hangs over Trump if it winds up engulfing his White House. New York may only be a short train ride away, but that distance would be invaluable if Republicans ever turn on the president.

George H.W. Bush managed to escape the fallout from Watergate even though he was chairman of the Republican National Committee when Richard Nixon resigned. Because he was U.N. Ambassador from 1971 to 1973, he was out of politics during the scandal-plagued reelection campaign.

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  1. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for Palm Sunday bombings at two Christian churches in Egypt, which killed more than 40 and left scores more injured. The bombings are the latest in a spate of ISIS attacks targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority and, together, marked the single deadliest day for the community in decades. They also occurred less than a month before a scheduled visit by Pope Francis to Egypt. (Heba Mahfouz and Sudarsan Raghavan)
  2. A U.S. Navy strike group began heading toward the Korean Peninsula Sunday, seeking to “maintain readiness” as Pyongyang prepares to celebrate two key anniversaries this week. Analysts expect the recent barrage of missile launches to continue, and activities around the country’s known nuclear test site have raised concerns that country may be preparing for a sixth nuclear test. (Anna Fifield)
  3. A U.S. soldier was killed in action while conducting operations against the Islamic State in Afghanistan. He was mortally wounded during an operation in the eastern province of Nangahar late Saturday night. (Thomas Gibbons-Neff)
  4. Sergio Garcia won the Masters. (Barry Svrluga in Augusta)
  5. A U.N.-backed tribunal seeking to prosecute the Khmer Rouge regime for killing nearly 2 million Cambodians has spent 11 years and nearly $300 million on the effort — but has convicted just three men. Now, many who have sought justice for one of the worst episodes of mass killing in the last century are wondering whether the tribunal has been worth it. (New York Times)
  6. Swedish police said the man suspected in Stockholm’s truck-attack on Friday was a failed asylum seeker who had gone into hiding before his scheduled deportation last year. Authorities said the suspect, a 39-year-old Uzbek man, has been “sympathetic to extremist organizations,” though no group has claimed responsibility.
  7. Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen denied that France was responsible for the roundup of more than 13,000 Jews during World War II, breaking with the country’s former and current president in a Sunday interview. Her comments were slammed by centrist rival Emmanuel Macron as a “serious mistake” and come as France prepares for its first round of presidential elections later this month. (AFP)
  8. A proposal in Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget plan seeks to stop Wisconsin from requiring that students spend a minimum number of hours in class  moving to instead allow school districts to “do what they want” in terms of seat hours for students. His proposal breaks with efforts elsewhere to expand the amount of instructional time in public schools. (Valerie Strauss)
  9. New York could become the largest state to offer tuition-free education at public universities, after negotiators struck a deal to include a scholarship program in the $163 billion state budget. The program covers tuition for any New Yorker accepted to one of the state’s community colleges or four-year universities, provided their family earns less than $125,000 a year. It is slated to take partial effect this fall. (Danielle Douglas-Gabriel)
  10. Dallas officials are investigating a hack of their emergency warning system after all 156 of its sirens started blaring simultaneously for nearly two hours this weekend. The sirens began blasting shortly before midnight Friday, prompting confusion and annoyance from the city’s 1.3 million bleary-eyed residents. (Avi Selk)
  11. Five children in South Carolina were injured after a wind gust hit an inflatable bounce house, launching it some 20 or 30 feet into the air while guests at an afternoon church picnic watched. Two children were seriously injured after falling from the structure while it was airborne. (Kristine Phillips)
  12. Fresh Express quietly moved to recall an “untold” quantity of organic salad from Walmart shelves this weekend, after two people in Florida found a decomposed bat inside their prepackaged bag of leafy greens. The pair had begun eating their salad when they made the discovery, though CDC officials sought to reassure consumers there is "a very small chance” the rabies virus also made its way into the mix. (Avi Selk)
Neil Gorsuch testifies during his confirmation hearing. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

TRUMP’S AGENDA:

-- Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was officially sworn in during a Rose Garden ceremony this morning, a big win for conservatives that many hope will resonate beyond recent legislative struggles. John Wagner, Sean Sullivan and Ed O'Keefe report: “Since he was inaugurated 80 days ago, Trump has failed to advance much of the ambitious legislative agenda he said would happen quickly if he was elected — rolling back the Affordable Care Act, rewriting the tax code and injecting big spending into the country’s infrastructure. But the confirmation of Gorsuch on Friday ... broke this pattern, at least in a singular instance. Trump allies in the conservative movement, and in Congress, hope that it will serve as a springboard for other triumphs and something of a reboot of his presidency. ‘I think it’s a big shot in the arm,’ [said] Trump ally Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. ‘It gives Republicans a taste of victory and reminds them we can have many more.’”

But the momentum will be harder to capitalize on than the new conventional wisdom suggests. Even GOP lawmakers question whether a nomination muscled through the Senate through an extraordinary rules change has much meaning for more difficult battles ahead. “I don’t think there’s any great lessons to be taken from the last few weeks here,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

-- A government shutdown at the end of the month is looking less likely. Kelsey Snell reports“Congress is off for two weeks, and when lawmakers return, they will quickly face a critical deadline to keep the government open. But in an unusual development on Capitol Hill, where budget brinkmanship has become a reliable expression of political dysfunction, nobody is threatening to shut the government down. Instead, Republicans and Democrats appear to be working together to keep the lights on in Washington. Aides in both parties said negotiations are underway on a stopgap funding measure that both sides could support, one that sidesteps such political land mines as [Trump’s] request for new funding to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border."

-- Trump is considering an executive action that would set in motion a formal investigation of our international trading partners. Damian Paletta explains why it matters: “If signed, the executive action would call for a review of foreign trading practices and could, depending on the results, be followed by retaliatory trade measures from the administration. The executive action would additionally reflect a tension within the White House between the economic populists, who have argued for more aggressive and adversarial moves against foreign countries, and the growing influence of pragmatists, who have called for a more measured approach. [The news came after] Trump and his advisers reached an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting last week to launch a 100-day plan to improve trade relations between China and the United States — a much more tepid step than Trump promised during the campaign. But the executive action under review could eventually lead to more aggressive U.S. trade actions against China, a sign that some voices within the White House believe more is needed.”

 Steve Bannon listens during a White House meeting. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

PERSONNEL IS POLICY:

-- “How Steve Bannon’s media machine drove a movement and paid him millions,” by Shawn Boburg and Robert O'Harrow Jr.: “Bannon could barely finish his sentences as he implored the listeners of his Breitbart News radio show to see the new movie ‘Clinton Cash.’ It was July 20, the homestretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, and Bannon … framed his radio show that day as an urgent effort to reveal important information for voters — but there was more to it. The show and ‘Clinton Cash’ were components of an intricate multimedia machine comprising nonprofit organizations and private companies that Bannon had leveraged to advance his conservative, populist agenda and bring in millions of dollars. A [Post] examination found that Bannon was able to produce more than a dozen conservative documentaries … by drawing on a network of two-dozen nonprofit organizations and private companies. Bannon helped arrange donations from wealthy Republicans to the nonprofits that paid him for films and other work, documents show. At the same time, Bannon and his firms took in at least $2 million from the nonprofits and an additional $5 million from the private companies.… Tax specialists said some of Bannon’s activities raise questions about compliance with IRS restrictions against using tax-exempt charities to attack a political candidate or for 'excessive personal financial benefit.'"

-- Trump ordered Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner to hold a sit-down meeting to “work out their differences” Friday afternoon, annoyed by all of last week’s stories about palace intrigue. The meeting — brokered by Reince Priebus — lasted nearly an hour and was described by White House officials as “amicable.” The president is now taking a wait-and-see approach as he mulls a big shake-up of his senior staff. (Abby Phillip)

-- A former spokesman for Breitbart News, Kurt Bardella, predicts that the web site will turn against Trump if Bannon gets fired: “It will be open warfare from the outside in,” he said on MSNBC. “And all of a sudden the pages of Breitbart … will start turning their fire on him.… They’re concerned they are about to lose their link to the West Wing and direct access to the president through Steve Bannon. Clearly Steve is under siege right now. The fact that so many on the conservative right so forcefully came out against the … strikes in Syria just tells you how much trouble Steve actually really is in. But they are really going out there publicly, hammering Jared Kushner-aligned strategies because they see Steve could be in jeopardy and could be asked to leave at some point in the near future.” (The Independent)

-- A taste of what's to come? The populists from the Bannon Wing spent the weekend ripping Kevin Hassett, Trump’s pick to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. As Breitbart framed the appointment in a lead story yesterday: “Trump has picked an economic advisor who believes in growing the nation’s economy by importing workers and consumers, and by expanding free-trade outsourcing, despite Trump’s ‘buy American, hire American’ campaign promises. … If Hassett is confirmed, that will be a win for the corporatist, business-first faction in Trump’s White House, which fights for influence in the Oval Office against the populist, America-first faction that helped Trump win the election in November.”

-- Conservatives and populists in Congress are worried about Bannon being sidelined. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeted this at the president around midnight:

Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway listens as Sean Spicer speaks during his daily press briefing on March 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

-- Many of the Trump loyalists in the West Wing don't think that the press office gets it. Politico’s Shane Goldmacher reports on a meeting early last week: “More than 30 Trump staffers piled into a conference room as Mike Dubke, Trump’s communications director … kicked off the discussion of how to package Trump’s tumultuous first 100 days by pitching the need for a ‘rebranding’ to get Trump back on track. Staffers, including counselor Kellyanne Conway, were broken into three groups, complete with whiteboards, markers and giant butcher-block-type paper to brainstorm lists of early successes. One group worked in the hallway. ‘It made me feel like I was back in 5th grade,’ complained [one] White House aide. ‘That’s the best way I could describe it.’

“Dubke, who did not work on the campaign, told the assembled aides that international affairs would present a messaging challenge because the president lacks a coherent foreign policy. (This was three days before Trump ordered the strikes in Syria.) ‘There is no Trump doctrine,’ Dubke declared. Some in the room were stunned by the remark. ‘It rubbed people the wrong way because on the campaign we were pretty clear about what he wanted to do,’ said (another) White House official in the room, ‘He was elected on a vision of America First. America First is the Trump doctrine.’ One of the administration officials lamented, ‘We’ve got a comms team supposedly articulating the president’s message [that] does not appear to understand the president’s message.’

Another remarkable blind quote: "We’ve got essentially two-and-a-half weeks to turn everything around," a White House official told Politico. "This is going to be a monumental task."

Trump finishes a round of golf at Mar-a-Lago this weekend. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

TRANSPARENCY WATCH:

-- Trump wrapped up an eventful weekend in Palm Beach by ditching the press corps and sneaking away early Sunday for a round of golf with friends. The Palm Beach Daily News reports: “The golf club was quiet, almost serene, in comparison with the weekend hubbub at Mar-a-Lago.… Then, without the usual movement of the Secret Service which usually presages the presidential approach, he was there, soaked with sweat from three hours in the Florida sun. After removing his red baseball cap (club rule) and giving a shout-out to Patrick Park, his pick for ambassador to Austria who was dining with friends, he settled into his chair while the diners applauded. Asked by one if he was coming back soon, he said ‘Yes. I’ll be here for Easter.’ Oh, so next week? ‘Is Easter next week?’ he asked. Then rolling his eyes, said ‘Well then, I guess I’ll be back next week.’

-- A coalition of government watchdog groups is planning to file a lawsuit against the Trump administration today, seeking to compel White House officials to continue the Obama administration’s practice of releasing logs of lobbyists and other visitors. Since the inauguration, White House officials have repeatedly declined to say whether they will continue the practice. They keep saying the policy is “under review.” (John Wagner)

-- Federal marshals are protecting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a cost to her agency of nearly $8 million over nearly eight months. “Marshals will continue providing security for the education secretary for the next four years, or until either agency decides to terminate the arrangement, under an agreement signed last week,” Emma Brown and Devlin Barrett scooped over the weekend. “While the department is spending the additional money on DeVos’s security, members of the in-house security team that guarded previous secretaries remain on the payroll. But they are not guarding DeVos and have not been assigned new duties.”

  • DeVos is the only Cabinet secretary under the protection of the marshals. Previous education secretaries have been protected by a team of department employees, many of whom were Secret Service veterans.
  • The Marshals Service is hiring nearly two dozen people to guard her. The agency said it has determined that a threat to DeVos’s safety exists, but declined to describe the nature or intensity of that threat.
  • Trump’s budget slashes funding for her department by $9 billion, or 13.5 percent.
Jon Ossoff talks with supporters at a meet-and-greet in a northern suburb of Atlanta on Friday night. (Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)

TWO DISPATCHES FROM GEORGIA:

-- “Republicans are becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to hang on to former Republican congressman Tom Price’s seat in a wealthy, suburban district where restive Democratic energy has been surging since November’s election," David Weigel and Travis Highfield report from Atlanta: “Democratic hopes (in the special election) rest on Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer and preternaturally on-message candidate. He has raised a whopping $8.3 million for the special election … Outside groups and the national Republican Party are spending millions on television ads that paint the Democrats as the hope of window-smashing anarchists who want Ossoff in Congress. Georgia Republican Party mailers darkly warn about Ossoff’s work for the Qatar-funded Al Jazeera TV network. (The mailers print the network’s Arabic name on a black background, resembling the flag of ISIS.) The National Rifle Association warns, in drawling radio ads, that Democrats want to 'steal this election and your freedom.'"

-- But the way the Republican hopefuls are positioning themselves is just as instructive, the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin explains: “Mr. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has blurred the bright-line ideological distinctions that defined the right for the past eight years … [upending] the Tea Party-versus-establishment divide, which has dominated fratricidal primary seasons since 2010. ... With Mr. Trump in charge, the political market for purity on the right has been devalued. [Now], the shifting conservative fault lines are on display … Even as they try to win over the sort of conservative activists dedicated enough to participate in a rare April election, the Republicans are casting themselves more as can-do pragmatists in the spirit of Mr. Trump than unwavering ideologues. At a candidate forum and in individual interviews afterward, three of the Republicans in the 18-person field invoked some variation of Ronald Reagan’s maxim that it is better to get 80 percent of what you want than nothing at all. Few embraced the Tea Party moniker. And none of the highest-polling candidates pledged to join the Freedom Caucus."

-- Going to Wichita: Tomorrow is the special to replace CIA director Mike Pompeo. On Friday, Republicans announced new spending in Kansas’s 4th District (which is much more Republican than Georgia-6). Ted Cruz is flying in for a rally today. Mike Pence has recorded a robo-call for the GOP candidate. It's a very likely GOP hold, but it's interesting that they're sweating GOTV in the final days. (The Kansas City Star)

Stephen Colbert's ratings have surged since the election. (Scott Kowalchyk/CBS)

TWO GOOD PROFILES OF MEN WHO HAVE MORE POWER THAN EVER:

-- New York Times Business Day cover, “How Stephen Colbert Finally Found His Elusive Groove,” by John Koblin: "One of the most surprising turnaround stories in recent television history began on one of the most surprising nights in political history. On Nov. 8, Stephen Colbert was hosting a live election night special for CBS’s sister cable network, Showtime. A program that was built around an expected Hillary Clinton victory went off the rails almost as soon as it went on the air at 11 p.m. As election returns came in, audience members, who had been asked to shut off their phones an hour earlier, gasped as it became clear that [Trump] could very well become president. Mr. Colbert looked dumbstruck. Sensing the gravity of the moment, [executive producer] Chris Licht … walked over to Mr. Colbert’s desk during a musical performance. ‘Stop being funny and go and just be real,’ Mr. Licht told the host. What followed was what Mr. Licht described in a recent interview as the turning point for Mr. Colbert. … ‘I think it’s when he became himself,’ he said.”

-- The New Yorker, “The Conservative Pipeline to the Supreme Court,” by Jeffrey Toobin: “Leonard Leo has for many years been the executive vice-president of the Federalist Society, a nationwide organization of conservative lawyers, based in Washington. Leo served, in effect, as Trump’s subcontractor on the selection of Gorsuch … [capping] a period of extraordinary influence for him and for the Federalist Society. During the [Bush administration], Leo also played a crucial part in the nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Now that Gorsuch has been confirmed, Leo is responsible, to a considerable extent, for a third of the Supreme Court. Leo, who is fifty-one, has neither held government office nor taught in a law school. He has written little and has given few speeches. He is not, technically speaking, even a lobbyist. Leo is, rather, a convener and a networker, and he has met and cultivated almost every important Republican lawyer in more than a generation.”

Rex Tillerson speaks to reporters at Mar-a-Lago. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

THE SHORTEST RUSSIA RESET EVER?

-- The Trump administration demanded Russia stop supporting the Syrian government on Sunday, warning against “further deterioration” in its relations with the U.S. as Rex Tillerson heads to Moscow. Carol Morello reports: "Several analysts said that Assad has humiliated Putin by using chemical weapons despite Russia’s guarantee that Syria’s stockpiles would be whisked away. Moscow’s interest in getting sanctions eased is greater than its loyalty to Assad. And that could provide maneuvering room for Tillerson."

Moscow's expectations that relations with the U.S. will improve have faded: "This is a big cold shower," said Samuel Charap, a Russia analyst with the Rand Corp. "Even if behind closed doors they might engage on other issues in a more pragmatic manner, the public posture is going to be one of emphasizing how they disagree about [Syria]. Putin is not going to want to be seen as chummy with the U.S. secretary of state."

Who will Rex meet with during his trip? "Tillerson departed around dawn Sunday for Italy to attend a meeting of the G-7 nations, a bloc of industrialized democracies. He is due to arrive late Tuesday in Russia for his first visit as secretary of state. He and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are scheduled to meet, but it is not known if the secretary of state will also speak with Putin, who personally bestowed the Order of Friendship on Tillerson in 2012. (We'd bet no.)

-- There is a bear in the woods: In case you missed the front page of Sunday’s Post, the Russians are ramping up their presence in NICARAGUA in a big way. (Read Josh Partlow’s dispatch from Managua.)

The White House released this image of Trump meeting with his national security team on Thursday night during the strikes on Syria. (Handout)

SMART SYRIA ANALYSIS FROM EXPERTS:

-- “If President Trump broadens his aims against Assad, to establish civilian safe havens, for example, or to ground Syria’s Air Force, or to bomb Assad to the negotiating table, he will enter the very morass that Candidate Trump warned against,” the New Yorker’s Steve Coll writes. “He would have to manage risks—military confrontation with Russia, an intensified refugee crisis, a loss of momentum against ISIS—that Obama studied at great length and concluded to be unmanageable, at least at a cost consistent with American interests. … Unfortunately, [Trump’s] continual search for approval seems to contribute to his unpredictability. Given his bombast, his inconsistency, and his preference for gut instinct over policy knowledge, he always seemed likely to be a dangerous wartime President. The worry now is that he will also be an ambitious one.”

-- “If the Trump administration and the Kremlin are not able to come to a meeting of the minds on Syria, it could set the two nuclear powers on a dangerous collision course,” writes Colin H. Kahl, who served as Joe Biden’s national security adviser. “The broader the administration’s goals in Syria, the more prone it will be to pressure to escalate there. [And] if the United States goes down this road, the prospects of a military confrontation with Moscow are real. A few thousand Russian military personnel are distributed across Syria’s key military bases. Moscow has also placed some of the world’s most sophisticated air defense systems in Syria … So an extensive U.S. campaign aimed at coercing Assad by targeting Syrian air bases and command-and-control facilities would run big risks of killing Russian troops on the ground. The same holds for a no-fly zone, which would likely require targeting Syrian and Russian air defenses and could lead to air-to-air incidents between Russian and U.S. jets...

-- “Entering a war with a righteous cause is a time-honored way for leaders everywhere to rally flagging public support for their rule,” Ishaan Tharoor writes in his WorldViews newsletter. “But Trump's priority has always been defeating the Islamic State, not removing Assad, whom Trump defended on the campaign trail as a terror-fighting Arab strongman. And keeping to that stance may be challenging. American allies and opponents of the Syrian regime are now urging the United States to go further in the fight against Assad. ‘If this intervention is limited only to an air base, if it does not continue and if we don’t remove the regime from heading Syria, then this would remain a cosmetic intervention,’ said Turkey's foreign minister, Mesut Cavusoglu.”

-- “Stylistically, Trump has broken all the norms,” Politico’s Annie Karni writes. “But the substance of Trump’s decisions in his first 79 days in office reveals a surprisingly conventional approach, with personal quirks layered on top, according to a half-dozen foreign policy experts. In interviews, those experts pointed to the elevation of McMaster and the firing of Flynn as the turning point in the mainstreaming of the Trump administration's relationship with the rest of the world. ‘He’s moving toward a more traditional foreign policy, and that’s a very encouraging thing,’ said Anja Manuel, a former special assistant to Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state in the Obama administration. ‘When you look at Trump’s foreign policy, you should look at what it does rather than what the president tweets,’ she said.”

-- Hypocrisy watch: Trump’s strike was effusively praised by several Republican leaders who mocked Obama’s planned 2013 attack as a “pinprick” and “too insignificant to matter." But Josh Rogin reports that the Obama administration planned strikes several times bigger than Trump’s. “Like Trump, the Obama team was not trying to topple the Assad regime and was not intending to address Assad’s use of conventional weapons to kill civilians. But the Obama plan was designed to be substantial enough to have an impact on Assad’s calculus. There were also plans to follow up with strikes on even more targets if Assad continued to use chemical weapons.  ‘The military planners thought that the attack we had planned in 2013 was significant enough to have a real deterrent effect,’ [an Obama administration] official said. ‘We had a strike plan that included additional targets that would not have been struck in the initial go around.’”

-- WaPo Fact Checker Glenn Kessler looks at how both Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell flip-flopped on using force in Syria to deter Assad from using chemical weapons. He gives the Speaker and Majority Leader an upside-down Pinocchio.

Benjamin Netanyahu is seen on monitors at Channel 10's control room in Jerusalem. (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)

WAPO HIGHLIGHTS:

-- “‘He has caused chaos’: How Netanyahu’s media war nearly split his government,” by Ruth Eglash: “A political cartoon of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stretched out on a psychologist’s couch and clutching TV sets, radios and newspapers to his chest might be the best depiction of a crisis that threatened to bring down the Israeli government. The cartoon was published [last month] … as the prime minister tried to stop the launch of a new public broadcasting cooperation that he once endorsed and even set in motion. On one level, the cartoon represented what many Israelis see as Netanyahu’s fantastical obsession with the media. In a deeper sense, however, it denotes what critics say appears to be his determination to weaken and ultimately control Israel’s small, Hebrew-language news industry. Whether ranting about ‘fake news’ or against a particular journalist on social media, Netanyahu makes no secret of the fact he believes that most news outlets in Israel are out to get him.” “This is a blow to the most important part of democracy — the news,” said opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

-- “No one could have known it at the time, but at the end of last summer, Justice Elena Kagan gave Neil Gorsuch a face-to-face tutorial on what it means to be the Supreme Court’s newest justice. It starts in the kitchen,” Robert Barnes reports. “I’ve been on the cafeteria committee for six years. (Justice) Steve Breyer was on the cafeteria committee for 13 years,” Kagan [told Gorsuch and former SCOTUS contender Timothy Tymkovich] at a Colorado event. The junior justice has three unique responsibilities, she said. But in recounting them, she always starts with the fact that the newest justice is assigned to cafeteria duty and keeps it until the next justice is confirmed. ‘I think this is a way to kind of humble people,’ she said … ‘You think you’re kind of hot stuff. You’ve just been confirmed to the United States Supreme Court. And now you are going to monthly cafeteria committee meetings where literally the agenda is what happened to the good recipe for the chocolate chip cookies.’”

-- “In Atlantic City, federal air marshals train to thwart terrorists,” by Lori Aratani: “The first thing you notice is the gunfire. Over the course of a day, the recruits who come to this tree-studded campus will shoot hundreds of rounds from every position. By the time their training is complete, they’ll have fired close to 5,000 rounds. That’s because when you’re a federal air marshal … precision matters. This year, the first new group of air marshal trainees since 2011 will go through a 16-week course designed to teach them how to spot — and thwart — potential threats on the thousands of commercial air flights that crisscross the globe each day. They’ll spend eight weeks in New Mexico learning basic police techniques before coming to this special [TSA] school in Atlantic City where their training takes into account their role as armed, undercover agents ... Shooting — and shooting with precision — is a big part of that, but so is being able to blend in and quietly size up passengers to determine who might be a threat.”

-- “What happens to political satire when the real world goes mad? ‘Veep’ is about to find out,” by Ben Terris: “‘Veep” is the story of an opportunistic, short-tempered vulgarian who by sheer determination and blind luck rose to become president of the United States. For five seasons the HBO sitcom has deftly parodied Washington, D.C., reveling in the pettiness, the naked ambition and, often, the idiocy of the nation’s capital. But now there’s a President Trump. And he and his administration have done a bang-up job of showcasing the peccadillos of our swampy little town on their own. … Not only has the psychodrama of this White House become its own must-watch TV, it’s also raised an existential question for the makers of ‘Veep’: What happens to your political satire when the real world has gotten crazier than anything you could have imagined?”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Bill Kristol has been supportive of military action, but The Weekly Standard editor couldn't resist this crack:

Not everyone is on board:

This GOP lawmaker is still taking a hard line:

Meanwhile...

Liberals went after Mitch McConnell:

In his defend: McConnell gave an extended interview to Paul Kane about his approach on Friday, and he wrote an op-ed for Sunday's paper explaining why he went nuclear: "Democrats have reaped what they have sown.

Dana Milbank argued in his column on Sunday's editorial page that McConnell is "The Man Who Broke America."

What a reunion:

This Michigan reporter wanted to know what Luke Skywalker thought of Trump airing Rogue One on Air Force One:

Mark Hamill replied:

Omarosa, the reality TV star turned senior White House aide, got married Saturday. A readout from The Reliable Source’s Helena Andrews-Dyer: “Manigault, 43, and John Allen Newman, 61, were originally slated to marry at Newman’s church in Jacksonville, Fla. But ‘security concerns’ forced the couple to scrap those plans and relocate the big day to the District. Good thing the boss owns a hotel here. … About 150 guests … attended the morning ceremony followed by a cherry blossom-themed brunch reception also held at the Trump hotel. The night before, Manigault and Newman held their rehearsal dinner at the Trump hotel, and afterward the bridal party headed to the White House for some bowling. … Later that night, the party continued at the Park at Fourteenth, where the bride and her bridesmaids changed into traditional Nigerian gele, elaborately wrapped headscarves. We’re told guests danced until midnight. Manigault, who lives in Washington, and Newman, who lives in Florida, are headed to Italy for their honeymoon."

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Trump’s Pick for Refugee Czar Never Resettled Refugees,” from The Daily Beast: “Refugee advocates worry the new appointee to run the agency charged with helping newly arrived refugees has little relevant experience, and fear this could mean the White House is prioritizing conservative ideology over experience when filling key posts. The new head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement … is E. Scott Lloyd, a conservative lawyer from the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable group. Before heading to the office, Lloyd worked in the Knights’ public policy office, where he traveled to Iraq several times to help develop a major report on the danger ISIS posed to Iraqi Christians. Lloyd has also written numerous articles criticizing abortion and arguing that access to contraceptives make the procedure more common. In a [2016] speech at CPAC … Lloyd indicated his experience with refugees hadn’t been a central part of his legal career, noting the ISIS report had been his focus ‘over the past few weeks.’”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“U.K. Bans Body-Positive Video Game Ad for Sexually Objectifying Women,” from National Review: “The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned a video-game ad featuring plus-sized models wearing swimsuits on the grounds that it ‘sexually objectified women.’ In case you’re not familiar with U.K. law, its ASA has the power to demand that any ad be removed for a broad range of subjective reasons …. Now, according to the ASA’s summary of the case, the ad’s creators said ‘the intention was to feature ‘real-sized’ women and reference mythical warrior women like Amazons and ‘Wonder Woman.’ [Still,] the ASA stated that it had ‘noted that the ad featured plus-sized models,’ but ultimately ‘considered that fact’ to be ‘irrelevant.’ ‘For those reasons, we considered that the ad objectified women and was therefore offensive,’ the ASA wrote.”

 

DAYBOOK:

At the White House: Trump and Pence will attend Neil Gorsuch’s swearing-in ceremony. Later, Trump will meet with OMB Director Mick Mulvaney.

Congress is on spring break.

Passover begins at sundown.

The winners of the Pulitzer Prize are announced at 3 p.m.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“He kept quiet,” said Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, discussing how Gorsuch successfully got confirmed. “Maybe he can learn a lesson from Melania. You never see her, she says nothing, and her approval ratings are over 50 percent.” (The Boston Globe’s Annie Linskey)

 

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

-- The Capital Weather Gang forecasts a beautiful, warmer-than-average week ahead. Today is going to be a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10: “Skies are mostly sunny and winds from the south draw in very warm air. Highs should hit 80 or so in most spots.” Expect temps like this to continue into the weekend.

-- The Maryland House of Delegates gave final approval this weekend to a bill designed to bolster state ethics laws, advancing the measure to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk after he proposed the plan as part of his legislative agenda earlier this year. The bill – which passed both state houses with unanimous support – seeks to increase financial disclosure requirements and broaden the definition of what constitutes a “conflict of interest” for public officials. (Josh Hicks)

-- Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) was visiting Egypt as part of a congressional delegation to hold counterterrorism discussions when Sunday’s bombings occurred. In a joint statement, the lawmakers (who were never in danger) said they were “sickened and horrified” at the attacks, and called Egypt one of America’s “most crucial partners” in the fight against Islamic State militants. (Faiz Siddiqui)

-- An NRA employee was taken to the hospital for treatment after accidently shooting himself at the organization’s headquarters. Authorities said the man’s pistol discharged as he was holstering it.  (Victoria St. Martin)

-- An alt-right group led by Richard Spencer and a group of opponents clashed in Lafayette Square on Saturday night, squaring off in one of the most raucous White House demonstrations of Trump’s presidency. The alt-right group rallied to protest further military intervention in Syria, while a group of antifascist demonstrators shouted slogans such as “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist USA.” U.S. Park Police and Secret Service agents stood between the two groups to separate them. (Moriah Balingit and Martin Weil)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Americans for Prosperity is launching a new ad urging Congress to abandon the border adjustment tax (BAT) provision currently included in House GOP leadership’s blueprint for tax reform. AFP, which is part of the Koch political network, will spend six figures to air the ad on cable news and digital sites. The group wants tax reform but not if this is part of it:

A liberal group organized to protect the Affordable Care Act is targeting seven vulnerable House Republicans with television ads as they begin a two-week stint in their home districts. “Save My Care, backed by labor and progressive groups, is spending more than $1 million on spots that highlight the members’ support for the GOP health-care plan that now stands in limbo in the House,” Mike DeBonis reports. “The seven Republicans targeted — Reps. Mike Coffman (Colo.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Darrell Issa (Calif.), Tom MacArthur (N.J.), Brian Mast (Fla.), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and David Valadao (Calif.) — appear on lists of key districts targeted by Democrats in 2018.” Here’s Issa version: 

Alec Baldwin's Trump had a town hall on "Saturday Night Live":

Baldwin playing Bill O'Reilly talked to Baldwin playing Trump -- about sexual harassment:

SNL imagines how Kendall Jenner's Pepsi ad got made:

Ivanka Trump posted a one-minute video of her kids performing for the president of China:

This pregnant Uber driver has no paid maternity leave:

How does the wild turkey cross the road?

Check out this man rescuing his dog from a frozen pond in Canada:

Hear the story of the the father whose Syrian twins were killed in the chemical attack:

Check out this baby day spa: