With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.

THE BIG IDEA: With the proposed expansion of offshore drilling and a crackdown on marijuana, the Trump administration created huge political headaches Thursday for scores of Republicans who were already facing a tough environment in 2018.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked Obama-era guidance to make it easier for federal prosecutors to enforce existing marijuana laws in the eight states that have legalized the substance.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, meanwhile, unveiled a proposal to permit drilling in most continental-shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, in a boon for oil companies.

Both moves are unpopular with  voters, especially key people in places that are likely to determine whether the GOP holds the House. In practice, these two stories probably pose bigger challenges for the president’s party in the midterms than any book about White House dysfunction. A Gallup poll in October found that 64 percent of Americans want to legalize marijuana, including a 51 percent majority of Republicans. Support is also particularly strong among millennial voters who Democrats are trying to galvanize for the midterms.

This explains why most elected Republicans in places that are directly impacted moved swiftly to distance themselves. For example, Trump lost by nine points in the suburban Denver district represented by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), making him one of the most endangered House Republicans on the ballot this November. “Attorney General Sessions needs to read the Commerce Clause found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution that limits the power of the federal government to regulate interstate and not intrastate commerce,” Coffman said in a statement. “The decision that was made to legalize marijuana in Colorado was made by the voters of Colorado and only applies within the boundaries of our state. Colorado had every right to legalize marijuana and I will do everything I can to protect that right against the power of an overreaching federal government.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), in an Orange Country district that Hillary Clinton carried, went even further: “The attorney general of the United States has just delivered an extravagant holiday gift to the drug cartels,” he said in a statement. “By attacking the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly favor marijuana legalization, Jeff Sessions has shown a preference for allowing all commerce in marijuana to take place in the black market, which will inevitably bring the spike in violence he mistakenly attributes to marijuana itself. He is doing the bidding of an out-of-date law enforcement establishment that wants to wage a perpetual weed war and seize private citizens’ property in order to finance its backward ambitions.”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), up for reelection this fall in a state Trump lost by 27 points, said he “fully supports the will of the voters” vis-à-vis marijuana. “The administration believes this is the wrong decision and will review any potential impacts from any policy changes by the local U.S. Attorney’s Office,” a spokesperson said.

-- Republicans governors from the coastal states of Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and even South Carolina publicly expressed concerns about the drilling news, as did many members of their House and Senate delegations.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a likely candidate for Senate this fall, noted that beach tourism is crucial for his state. “I have already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration,” he said. “My top priority is to ensure that Florida’s natural resources are protected.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R) called on Zinke “to recognize the Florida Congressional delegation’s bipartisan efforts to maintain and extend the moratorium in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), where Trump lost by 26 points, said he will oppose the drilling plan “to the fullest extent that is legally possible” and plans to work with the Democratic attorney general to do so. “Protecting our environment and precious natural resources is a top priority for Governor Hogan and exactly why he has made clear that he opposes this kind of exploration off our coastline,” said Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer.

Several of the vulnerable Republican congressmen who spoke out against offshore drilling have weak environmental records. Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), for example, has a 27 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, HuffPost notes. But he represents a district that Trump lost, where drilling is unpopular. So he called Zinke’s move “unnecessary at this time.” “We must prioritize being good stewards of the environment,” he said in a statement.

But these lawmakers understand the dynamics in their districts. “The Obama administration considered a five-year plan to permit drilling in the Atlantic between Virginia and Georgia but abandoned it in March 2016 because of concerns raised by states and the Navy, which conducts military exercises in a vast area of the ocean near those states,” Darryl Fears reports. “Offshore drilling led to one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill of 215 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling beaches from Louisiana to Florida …

“The effects of the spill are still being felt more than seven years later,” Darryl notes. “Hydrocarbons linked to the spill were detected in 90 percent of pelican eggs more than 1,000 miles away in Minnesota, scientists say. Dolphins in Barataria, La., have experienced mortality rates 8 percent higher than dolphin populations elsewhere, and their reproduction success dropped 63 percent. The well’s owner, BP, had paid penalties in excess of $61 billion as of July 2016. Two weeks ago, the Interior Department suspended a study conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling platforms.”

-- The move by Sessions could have far-reaching political consequences in Colorado, a purple state Trump lost in 2016. The legal marijuana industry generates billions in revenue for the state and is responsible for many jobs.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), perhaps the most vulnerable Republican incumbent up for reelection in 2020, threatened to put a hold on all of Trump’s nominees for the Justice Department over the new directive. “This is about a decision by the state of Colorado, and we were told states’ rights would be protected,” he said in a fiery floor speech. “One tweet later, one policy later ― a complete reversal of what many of us on the Hill were told before the confirmation. Without any notification, conversation or dialogue with Congress, completely reversed!”

The senator’s threat is meaningful, and he has lots of leverage, because there are still no confirmed assistant attorneys general for the national security, criminal and civil rights divisions. Of the 93 U.S. attorney slots nationwide, Trump has nominated 58 and only 46 have been confirmed by the Senate.

Gardner spoke by phone Thursday with Sessions. “Let’s just say, there was no reconciliation of differences,” he told The Washington Post. The two will meet next week.

As a candidate, competing in Colorado, Trump promised he would not use federal authority to shut down sales of recreational marijuana. He told a local TV station that he believes the matter should be left “up to the states.”

-- Nevada’s Dean Heller, the most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection in 2018, put out a more nuanced statement: “Knowing Attorney General Sessions' deference to states' rights, I strongly encourage the DOJ to meet with Governor [Brian] Sandoval and Attorney General [Adam] Laxalt to discuss the implications of changes to federal marijuana enforcement policy. I also urge the DOJ to work with the congressional delegations from states like Nevada that have legalized marijuana as they review and navigate the new policy.”

Laxalt, the Nevada attorney general and a Republican candidate for governor, noted that while he opposed the ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana, “I also pledged to defend the measure were it approved by the voters.” He highlighted his defense of legal pot in two lawsuits. “My office has expeditiously facilitated the implementation of the law in the face of considerable uncertainty about the status of federal enforcement activity,” he said.

The elected GOP attorney general of Colorado, Cynthia Coffman, also said the federal government should “not target marijuana businesses who abide by our state’s laws.” “As Attorney General it is my responsibility to defend our state laws — and I will continue to do so,” she said.

-- To be sure, it’s not just vulnerable GOP incumbents speaking out and these objections aren’t just politically motivated. All three Republicans in the Alaska congressional delegation spoke out against the marijuana change, for instance:

  • Rep. Don Young, the dean of the House, called it an “unacceptable … direct violation of states' rights.”
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she has “repeatedly discouraged” Sessions from taking this action over the past year, and that she asked him to work with the states in a cooperative way if he felt changes are necessary. “[The] announcement is disruptive to state regulatory regimes and regrettable,” she wrote on Facebook.
  • Sen. Dan Sullivan said it “adds new confusion and uncertainty for numerous states and communities.” He believes that it could be “the impetus necessary for Congress to find a permanent legislative solution for states that have chosen to regulate the production, sale and use of marijuana.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), safely reelected, also chastised Sessions’s announcement: “I continue to believe that this is a states’ rights issue, and the federal government has better things to focus on.”

UNCERTAINTY AND REASSURANCE:

-- Reacting to the intraparty blowback, the Trump administration sought to downplay the significance of both announcements. “Nothing is final,” Zinke told reporters. “This is a draft program. The states, local communities and congressional delegations will all have a say” before the proposal becomes final.

“Our goal certainly isn’t to cross Governor Scott,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at her afternoon briefing. “Just because we may differ on issues from time to time doesn’t mean that we can’t still have an incredibly strong and good relationship.”

-- “Whether Sessions’s Justice Department actually busts dispensaries or others involved in state-approved pot production remains to be seen,” Matt Zapotosky, Sari Horwitz and Joel Achenbach report. “Sessions announced his decision in a memo sent to U.S. attorneys. He said prosecutors should disregard the old guidance and instead use their discretion — taking into consideration the department’s limited resources, the seriousness of the crime and the deterrent effect that they could impose — in weighing whether charges were appropriate. In a briefing with reporters, a senior Justice Department official said it was unclear whether the new directive would lead to more prosecutions, because that will be up to individual U.S. attorneys across the country. But the official said that previous guidance ‘created a safe harbor for the marijuana industry to operate in these states’ and that that was inconsistent with federal law.”

-- But there is already significant fallout. For instance, the chairman of Alaska’s Marijuana Control Board resigned after the news broke. Peter Mlynarik noted that the state’s rules were designed with the previous DOJ guidance in mind. “When you remove the Cole memorandum … there's no reason why they're not going to prosecute marijuana,” he told the Anchorage Daily News. “Commercial marijuana, I think, is really in jeopardy.” Mlynarik is Soldotna's police chief. “If they are taking a different stance on it, I don't want to be involved in something they are going to come down on," he explained.

-- Because this involves marijuana, there were lots of jokes on social media about the new directive. The Colorado state Senate's Democratic Caucus tweeted this:

-- But this is no laughing matter. Consider this story:

Being Black in Trump Country: Dozens of People Arrested for Less Than an Ounce of Weed,” by The Intercept's Shaun King: “After claiming to find less than an ounce of weed in total — which has a street value of around $150 to $200 and would mean only a ticket in the nearby city of Atlanta — police in Cartersville charged all 70 people gathered for a birthday party — including men, women, boys, and girls, ranging from the ages of 15 to 31 — with drug possession and hauled them off to Bartow County Jail. … Many of these people’s lives will be ruined because of that small amount of marijuana. Scores of lawyers have been hired; nearly $100,000 in bail money was paid[.] … Their mugshots were publicly released. Unable to afford bail, many of the men and women who were arrested were then fired from their jobs after they were left in jail for days on end.”

-- Paste Magazine notes the degree to which local decriminalization efforts succeeded across red and blue states in 2016: “Maine legalized marijuana with 46,175 more votes than Trump received. California legalized marijuana with 3,495,231 more votes than Trump received. Massachusetts legalized marijuana with 678,435 more votes than Trump received. Nevada legalized marijuana with 90,405 more votes than Trump received. Florida — a state Trump won — legalized medical marijuana with 1,901,033 more votes than Trump received. North Dakota — a state where Trump more than doubled Hillary’s vote total — legalized medical marijuana with 752 less votes than Trump received. Arkansas legalized medical marijuana with 99,842 less votes than Trump received. Montana — who has voted Democrat in one presidential election since 1968 — legalized medical marijuana with 12,094 more votes than Trump received. The only state where marijuana was on the 2016 ballot and lost was Arizona.”

-- National Review calls marijuana “a gateway drug to federalism”: “If Colorado or Oregon want to legalize weed while Mississippi and Utah ban it, that’s fine. In fact, that is how the country is supposed to work,” writes Charles C.W. Cooke. “The United States is a collection of . . . well, of states; it is not a giant centralized democracy with fifty regional departments. Congress should make it a priority to get the federal government out of this area, and to let the states, not the attorney general’s fealty, determine which rules are best for their citizenries. And conservatives, of all people, should celebrate that. The Founders did not write the Constitution to impose uniformity on hemp. Rarely will we get a better teaching moment than this one.”

-- Here’s a taste of how the DOJ announcement is being covered across the country:

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- Federal agencies are open as usual today, but many school districts in the DMV are operating on delays. See the full list here.

-- The wind chill in Washington will dip below zero today. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Air that slaps you in the face and must be respected. That’s the case here, with wind chills near zero to perhaps -10 at times this morning. Despite sunshine, west-northwesterly wind starts increasing again, gusting toward 35 or 40 mph. High temperatures only manage the teens to around 20. Please take care. There’s at least a slight chance we set records for cold high temperatures[.]”

-- The historic “bomb cyclone” causing all of this cold weather ripped into the northeastern seaboard yesterday, unleashing a torrent of snow, floods and hurricane-force winds. Forecasters say the storm, which explosively intensified late Wednesday, is one of the most powerful East Coast winter storms in modern history. The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow reports: “As the storm blossomed Wednesday and early Thursday with thunderstorms erupting around its comma-shaped center, forecasters expressed pure awe at the meteorological marvel. ‘Jaw, meet floor,’ tweeted Sam Lillo, a meteorology PhD student. The storm expanded over enormous territory, even drawing moisture from deep in the Caribbean.”

“As the day wore on, the mammoth winter storm … continued marching north, sweeping across population center after population center,” Mark Berman and Jason Samenow report. “As much as 14 inches fell in Greater Boston on Thursday, leaving more than 24,000 without power by late afternoon as the storm caused what officials called a ‘historic high tide’ to flood coastal towns.” Meanwhile, utility companies scrambled to restore power to tens of thousands of people before the second phase — which will plunge temperatures into the single digits and teens in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and New England.

  • In Boston, officials said they expect 12 to 18 inches of snow before the storm moves north. Wind gusts of at least 70 mph were clocked in coastal parts of Massachusetts.
  • In New England and Nova Scotia, offshore models predicted wave heights up to five stories tall. Significant coastal flooding was also reported in Maine and New Hampshire.
  • At least 4,500 flights were canceled on Thursday alone. In New York City, whiteout conditions brought all air travel to a temporary standstill. 

-- Local officials are bracing for the second phase a numbing cold that could cause temperatures to plummet by as much as 40 degrees. “On Sunday morning, subzero cold is forecast over almost all of New England, with single digits in the Mid-Atlantic. New York City’s temperature may drop below zero for only the second time since 2000,” Samenow writes.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Republican incumbent David E. Yancey was selected as the winner of a Virginia House of Delegates race after his name was drawn from a bowl to settle a tie with his Democrat opponent. This means the GOP is poised to keep control of the chamber. But as the loser of the drawing, Shelly Simonds is entitled by law to request a second recount — meaning the highly consequential race may not be over just yet. (Laura Vozzella)
  2. The Dow Jones industrial average reached 25,000 for the first time. Market analysts recently raised many companies’ profit expectations after the passage of the GOP tax plan. (Renae Merle)
  3. For the third year in a row, police fatally shot almost 1,000 people in 2017. But the 19 unarmed black men killed in 2017 marks a decline from two years ago, when police shot and killed 36 unarmed black men. (John Sullivan, Zane Anthony, Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins)

  4. An Alabama woman who accused Roy Moore of making unwanted sexual contact when she was 14 is suing him for defamation. Attorneys for Leigh Corfman said she is not seeking financial compensation beyond legal costs. Corfman wants a public apology, as well as a court-enforced ban from any future public attacks by the state's former chief justice. (Beth Reinhard)
  5. Moore’s wife also revealed the identity of the family’s “Jewish” lawyer, who is actually Christian. Kayla Moore told the Birmingham News the lawyer’s name is Martin Wishnatsky, and he works at the Foundation for Moral Law, where Moore serves as president. (Several outlets, including The Daily 202, misidentified Richard Jaffe as the attorney in question.) Although Wishnatsky was raised Jewish, the 73-year-old said he accepted Christ in his 30s. 

  6. A prominent newspaper executive in Alabama was accused of spanking multiple female employees in the 1970s. After the allegations were reported in local outlets this week, the executive admitted to spanking at least one female reporter in an attempt to “calm her down.” (Samantha Schmidt)
  7. A man was arrested after the woman sitting next to him on an airplane accused him of sexually assaulting her while she slept. The victim told flight attendants she awoke to the man’s hand inside her unbuttoned pants. (Eli Rosenberg)

  8. The number of teenagers having sex has declined over the past decade. A new CDC survey, which showed an especially marked drop in the past two years, reflects a wider decline in risky behaviors among American teens. (Lenny Bernstein)
  9. A new law in Iceland is attempting to close the country’s gender pay gap by publicly shaming companies who are seen as discriminatory against women. Now, companies with more than 25 employees must obtain government certification that female employees are earning as much as their male counterparts — and failure to obtain it could result in fines and other sanctions. (Rick Noack)
  10. For the first time in 50 years, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is charging an entrance fee for out-of-state visitors. Those who don't live in New York will have to pay $25 to visit the museum, while New Yorkers will have to present identification. (New York Times

  11. Iguanas are falling out of trees in South Florida because of the cold. But the “raining iguanas” are not necessarily dead. They can become mobile again once they thaw out a bit. (Herman Wong)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Trump asked a White House lawyer to ensure that Jeff Sessions didn't recuse himself from the department's Russia investigation, which is now being helmed by Robert Mueller. The New York Times’s Michael S. Schmidt with last night's story: “Public pressure was building for Mr. Sessions, who had been a senior member of the Trump campaign, to step aside. But the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, carried out the president’s orders and lobbied Mr. Sessions to remain in charge of the inquiry, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

Mr. McGahn was unsuccessful, and the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.”

The Times story reveals several new nuggets that may aid Mueller's team in its Russia probe, which is also considering whether Trump obstructed justice. Mueller is also carefully examining the false statement the president dictated on Air Force One in July, after it was reported that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. Michael Wolff's new book about the Trump White House “says that the president’s lawyers believed that the statement was 'an explicit attempt to throw sand into the investigation’s gears,' and that it led one of Mr. Trump’s spokesmen to quit because he believed it was obstruction of justice.”

There is also new information in the piece about the decision to fire former FBI Director Jim Comey. According to Schmidt, an original draft of a statement explaining such a decision, written in New Jersey following May 3 testimony on the Hill by Comey, “the letter’s first sentence said the Russia investigation had been 'fabricated and politically motivated.' On Monday, May 8, Mr. Trump met with Mr. Sessions and [Deputy AG Rod] Rosenstein to discuss firing Mr. Comey, and Mr. Rosenstein agreed to write his own memo outlining why Mr. Comey should be fired.” That memo cited Comey's handling of the Clinton email probe.

Bottom line: “Legal experts said that of the two primary issues Mr. Mueller appears to be investigating — whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice while in office and whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — there is currently a larger body of public evidence tying the president to a possible crime of obstruction.”

More troubling episodes:

  • " . . . Mr. Trump described the Russia investigation as 'fabricated and politically motivated' in a letter that he intended to send to the F.B.I. director at the time, James B. Comey, but that White House aides stopped him from sending. Mr. Mueller has also substantiated claims that Mr. Comey made in a series of memos describing troubling interactions with the president before he was fired in May.”
  • “The special counsel has received handwritten notes from Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, showing that Mr. Trump talked to Mr. Priebus about how he had called Mr. Comey to urge him to say publicly that [Trump] was not under investigation.”
  • " . . .  four days before Mr. Comey was fired, one of Mr. Sessions’s aides asked a congressional staff member whether he had damaging information about Mr. Comey.” It's unclear if Mueller's team is aware of this.

-- The Justice Department is taking a fresh look at Hillary Clinton’s private email server, the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff reports: “An ally of [Sessions] who is familiar with the thinking at the Justice Department’s Washington headquarters described it as an effort to gather new details on how Clinton and her aides handled classified material. Officials’ questions include how much classified information was sent over Clinton’s server; who put that information into an unclassified environment, and how; and which investigators knew about these matters and when. The Sessions ally also said officials have questions about immunity agreements that Clinton aides may have made.”

-- House Freedom Caucus Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) penned a Washington Examiner op-ed entitled, “It's time for Jeff Sessions to go, as shown by the latest FBI leak.” “It’s apparent that Comey has never had a problem sharing information with reporters, and he allowed his team to ‘follow the leader’ in that regard — but it is time for this practice to come to an immediate end. [Sessions] has recused himself from the Russia investigation, but it would appear he has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world. … If Sessions can't address this issue immediately, then we have one final question needing an answer: When is it time for a new attorney general? Sadly, it seems the answer is now.”

-- During his Wednesday meeting with DAG Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) backed up the House Intelligence Committee’s request for documents about the infamous Trump dossier. CNN’s Laura Jarrett, Evan Perez and Manu Raju report: “While Ryan had already been in contact with Rosenstein for months about the dispute over documents, Rosenstein and Wray wanted to make one last effort to persuade him to support their position. The documents in dispute were mostly FBI investigative documents that are considered law enforcement sensitive and are rarely released or shared outside the bureau. During the meeting, however, it became clear that Ryan wasn't moved and the officials wouldn't have his support if they proceeded to resist [Intel Chair Devin] Nunes' remaining highly classified requests[.]”

-- Mark Zuckerberg announced his resolution in 2018, an election year, was to “fix” Facebook. “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do -- whether it's protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post. “My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues. We won't prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools. If we're successful this year then we'll end 2018 on a much better trajectory.”

TRUMP'S AGENDA: 

    -- Trump called on Congress to deliver a bipartisan immigration deal for DACA recipients ahead of a looming March 5 deadline — but maintained his demands for a border wall and cuts to legal immigration that Democrats oppose. 

    • GOP senators went to the White House to discuss the issue with the president. In comments to reporters afterward, Sens. James Lankford (Okla.), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) sought to redefine Trump’s commitment to build a wall. “Cornyn and Tillis said they expect any agreement to include language authorizing a years-long project to fortify the border with funding for the new security measures to be doled out in future appropriations bills,” David Nakamura and Ed O'Keefe report. “Ultimately, the plan would result in ‘probably a net increase of 600 miles of wall,’ Tillis said. ‘That will be varying barriers based on where you are along the border, but that’s the long-term view.’” 
    • Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump will host a bipartisan group of lawmakers next week to continue the negotiations.
    • “To earn his support for the GOP’s tax reform plan, [Sen. Jeff] Flake said he was assured by Trump and [Mitch McConnell] that a bill addressing the fate of DACA recipients would be given an up-or-down vote this month. 'The promise we have is for a bill on the floor by the end of January,' Flake told reporters.”

    -- DHS faces a Monday deadline to decide whether to extend Temporary Protected Status for 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States. Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti report: “Both [DHS] and the White House have signaled for months that they are determined to end the TPS protections as a matter of principle, potentially forcing the Salvadorans to leave or face deportation if they do not find another way to obtain legal residency. A senior DHS official said Thursday that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has yet to make a determination but that the agency would have an announcement before Monday’s deadline. … Salvadorans are by far the largest group of TPS recipients. They were allowed to stay after a pair of 2001 earthquakes, and their provisional residency has been renewed on an 18-month basis since then.”

    -- The Labor Department issued a proposal to expand the availability of association health plans that don’t abide by some Obamacare requirements. Amy Goldstein reports: “ Proponents say the association health plans would be less expensive and enhance consumer choice, while critics — including the insurance industry — fear they would promote substandard coverage and weaken the ACA’s already fragile insurance marketplaces. Specifically, the rules would allow such health plans to be reclassified so they no longer would have to include a set of 10 essential health benefits — including maternity care, prescription drugs and mental health services — that the ACA requires of insurance sold to individuals and small companies.”

    -- California has introduced legislation to skirt the tax bill that, if successful, could become a model for other states. Damian Paletta reports: “California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (D) introduced a bill that would allow taxpayers to make a charitable donation to the California Excellence Fund instead of paying certain state taxes. They could then deduct that contribution from their federal taxable income. …  De Leon’s bill, if it became law, would essentially allow Americans to deduct much more than the $10,000 limit by redirecting state tax payments into a type of charitable contribution that would be later redirected to the state.”

    -- The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein argues that Congress’s party-line passage of the tax bill dooms Republicans’ chances of overhauling entitlements: “That’s a problem, and not just for Republicans like [Paul] Ryan looking to shrink the federal government. It’s an issue for Democrats, too: They want to preserve crucial investments in younger generations, but to do so they’ll eventually — and begrudgingly — need to impose some limits on the rising spending for seniors. The clear message of recent political history is that the only way to implement such constraints is for both parties to link arms behind them. Yet the Republican tax cut, by enlarging the federal deficit by up to $2 trillion on a party-line vote, has made such a bipartisan agreement almost impossible to construct.”

    -- Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who led Trump’s now-disbanded voting commission, filed criminal charges against two people he claims voted illegally in 2016. The Kansas City Star’s Bryan Lowry reports: “[Kobach] has filed charges against 15 people since [2015] for a variety of election crimes, resulting in nine convictions or plea deals and one dismissal. The remaining five cases, including the charges announced Thursday, remain pending. Most of those cases have involved U.S. citizens who have allegedly voted in more than one jurisdiction rather than non-citizens, despite Kobach’s claims that hundreds of non-citizens are on the voter rolls.”

    THE ROAD TO 2018:

    -- Trump and Mitt Romney spoke over the phone last night as rumors continue to swirl that the former governor will enter the race to replace Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Trump and Romney reportedly discussed Hatch during the short phone call, which lasted less than 10 minutes. Trump also took the opportunity to wish Romney luck in his future endeavors. (Politico)

    -- GOP congressional leaders are planning to brief Trump today on the challenges facing Republicans in the midterms. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) will lead separate presentations on the topic during the Republican leadership retreat at Camp David this weekend. (Politico)

    -- Another GOP retirement: Rep. Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican and chairman of the House Administration Committee, announced that he will not seek a sixth term. He is the 44th member of the House — and the sixth committee chair — to announce this cycle that he will not seek reelection. (CNN)

    -- Two Republican super PACs have started spending money in a Pennsylvania special election that Democrats once considered unwinnable. David Weigel reports: “Ending Spending Inc., funded in large part by the billionaire Ricketts family, announced a $1 million ad buy on Thursday in the district — beating both Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone to the airwaves ahead of the March 13 special election. In the 30-second biographical spot, Ending Spending presents Saccone, a conservative state representative, as a veteran who would ‘support tax reform that cuts middle-class taxes.’ On Friday, the congressional Leadership Fund — a PAC closely aligned with [Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)] — will dive into the district, opening two campaign offices with hopes of getting at least 50 canvassers to knock on 250,000 doors.”

    -- Fights over indigenous voting rights are playing out in courts across the country — and it’s a trend that not only has the potential to tip tight races in key states. The New York Times’s Julie Turkewitz reports: “Today, Native Americans are suing over a new voter identification law in North Dakota, where lawyers say there is not a single driver’s license site on a reservation in a state that requires identification to vote. In the battleground state of Nevada, [indigenous peoples won a 2016 lawsuit] that forced officials to open new polling stations in tribal areas and spurred nine other tribes to request their own election sites. … And in Alaska, where native people make up a fifth of the population, officials recently rolled out election materials in the Yup’ik, Inupiaq and Gwich’in languages, following federal rulings that found the state had failed to provide materials equivalent to those used by English speakers. After those changes, turnout in villages rose by as much as 20 percent, increasing the political power of the state’s native residents. [The] shift here is part of an escalating battle over Native American enfranchisement, one that comes amid a larger wave of voting rights movements spreading across the country.” “It’s a historic moment for us,” said Wilfed Jones, who sued San Juan County on behalf of his Navajo people last year. “We look at what happened with the Deep South,” he went on, “how they accomplished what they have. We can do the same thing.”

    WEST WING INTRIGUE:

    -- The publisher of Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury,” announced it has pushed up its release date, citing “unprecedented demand” and defying Trump’s lawyers, who issued a cease-and-desist letter to Henry Holt & Co. hours earlier. In a statement, the company confirmed it had received the letter and would proceed with publication, saying: “We see ‘Fire and Fury’ as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse.”

    -- The broad consensus among legal experts is that Trump faces an uphill battle in trying to block publication of Wolff’s book — and view the move more as an intimidation attempt than a genuine legal threat. Robert Barnes reports: “’It is unthinkably difficult to imagine a president suppressing publication of a book criticizing him,’ said Floyd Abrams, a noted First Amendment lawyer who has represented the media. Journalism evaluating the president’s performance in office receives ‘the super-highest levels of First Amendment protection.’ It is exceedingly difficult for any public official to prove libel. It requires a plaintiff to show that a writer knew the disputed statement was false but printed it anyway or acted with ‘reckless disregard.’ That requires proof that the writer seriously doubted the truth of what he wrote. ‘The demand for proof of reckless disregard is at its zenith when it comes to the president and the White House,’ said Ronald K.L. Collins, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Washington School of Law.”

    -- Some experts argue that Trump’s threats could set a dangerous First Amendment precedent. Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report: “Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, likened Trump’s actions this week to those of Richard M. Nixon[.] … Though several presidents — including Jimmy Carter and Theodore Roosevelt — have sued for libel after leaving office, it is uncommon and potentially damaging for a current occupant of the Oval Office to try to use the powers of the presidency to take on personal and political rivals, Brinkley said. ‘Trump is stealing a page out of Richard Nixon’s playbook once again,’ Brinkley said. ‘When you get criticized by the press or a book that attacks you, you attack back with ferocity . . . It’s a misuse of presidential powers.’”

    -- Wolff has released two more previews of the book in GQ and the Hollywood Reporter.

    Here are some of the newsiest tidbits from GQ:

    • In April, “[Roger] Ailes, in secret, had been plotting his comeback with a new conservative network. Then in internal exile at the White House, Bannon — ‘the next Ailes’ — was all ears. … Bannon let Ailes know that, for now, he was trying to hold on to his position in the White House. But yes, the opportunity was obvious.”
    • When Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks debated whether Trump should attend White House Correspondents’ Dinner, “The central problem was that the president was neither inclined to make fun of himself, nor particularly funny himself — at least not, in Conway’s description, ‘in that kind of humorous way.’”
    • “Conway seemed to have a convenient ‘on-off’ toggle. In private, in the off position, she seemed to regard Trump as a figure of exhausting exaggeration or even ­absurdity — or, at least, if you regarded him that way, she seemed to suggest that she might too. She illustrated her opinion of her boss with a whole series of facial expressions: eyes rolling, mouth agape, head snapping back. But in the on position, she ­metamorphosed into believer, protector, defender and handler.”
    • “Shortly after [campaign manager Corey] Lewandowski, with whom Hicks has been rumoured to have had an on-and-off romantic relationship, was fired in June 2016 for clashing with Trump family members, Hicks sat in Trump Tower with Trump and his sons, worrying about Lewandowski’s treatment in the press and wondering aloud how she might help him. Trump … looked up and said, ‘Why? You’ve already done enough for him. You’re the best piece of tail he’ll ever have,’ sending Hicks running from the room.”

    And from the Hollywood Reporter:

    • “[F]ew on the Trump team knew him very well — most of his advisors had been with him only since the fall. Even his family, now closely gathered around him, seemed nonplussed. ‘You know, we never saw that much of him until he got the nomination,’ Eric Trump's wife, Lara, told one senior staffer.”
    • “Everybody was painfully aware of the increasing pace of his repetitions. It used to be inside of 30 minutes he'd repeat, word-for-word and expression-for-expression, the same three stories — now it was within 10 minutes. Indeed, many of his tweets were the product of his repetitions — he just couldn't stop saying something.”
    • Wolff's own take: “[M]y indelible impression of talking to them and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all — 100 percent — came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job. At Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognize a succession of old friends.”

    -- “I asked Trump a blunt question: Do you read?” by Joe Scarborough: “Mika Brzezinski and I had a tense meeting with Trump following what I considered to be a bumbling debate performance in September 2015. I asked the candidate a blunt question. ‘Can you read?’ Awkward silence. ‘I’m serious, Donald. Do you read?’ I continued. ‘If someone wrote you a one-page paper on a policy, could you read it?’ Taken aback, Trump quietly responded that he could while holding up a Bible given to him by his mother. He then joked that he read it all the time. I am apparently not the only one who has questioned the president’s ability to focus on the written word. ‘Trump didn’t read,’ Wolff writes. ‘He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist.’”

    -- Steve Bannon’s hopes of leading a revolt in the Republican Party have suffered a serious blow, as allies begin to abandon him in the wake of his comments to Wolff about the Trump family. Michael Scherer, Robert Costa and Rosalind S. Helderman report: “Candidates who once embraced Bannon distanced themselves from his efforts, groups aligned with his views sought separation … [and] even his position as chairman of Breitbart News, a website he has referred to as one of his most effective ‘weapons,’ was being reviewed by the company’s leadership … a move that [Sarah Huckabee Sanders] publicly encouraged at Thursday’s White House news briefing. One person close to Trump said, ‘The president’s take is that everyone has to now make a choice: ‘It’s me or it’s Steve.’”

    In the most striking example, the Mercer family — Bannon’s most important financial backer — publicly announced it was severing ties with the former Trump strategist. Rosalind S. Helderman reports: “’I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected,’ [daughter Rebekah Mercer said in a rare public statement]. ‘My family and I have not communicated with Steve Bannon in many months and have provided no financial support to his political agenda, nor do we support his recent actions and statements.’” This statement, has left Bannon isolated from the two power centers that elevated him from a fringe commentator to an office in the White House.

    “Breitbart executives, along with Mercer, who holds a minority stake, discussed pushing Bannon out of the company he helped make famous,” Michael, Robert and Roz report. “Among their concerns in doing so is the reaction of hard-line conservatives, who make up much of the site’s readership, and also of Bannon, who would be unlikely to leave quietly, the sources said. Friends of the Mercers working at the White House privately shared their view that Bannon’s ouster from Breitbart would be well-received by the president, who has been irritated for months with Bannon’s rising profile …”

    -- “The Mercer family … began drifting from Mr. Bannon months ago amid concerns about how the controversy he was generating was affecting the [family],” the New York Times’s Kenneth P. Vogel and Jonathan Martin report. “The Mercers were upset further when they learned that Mr. Bannon had privately boasted that they would back him if he ran for president … [and] cut off their funding for Mr. Bannon’s personal protective detail … [His] predicament highlights a stark reality in American politics, unchanged even after Mr. Trump’s convention-defying victory: The influence of even the most influential political strategists is inextricably linked to the donors behind them and the politicians in front of them.”

    -- Bigger picture: Why would Bannon blow up his relationship with the president — and much of the orbit surrounding him — in such an epic, high-profile manner? The Fix’s Aaron Blake outlined three possible theories:

    • Bannon was just spouting off: “[Bannon] has certainly shown before that he is frustrated with the direction of the White House. Maybe Wolff, who was apparently granted a stunning amount of access in the White House, simply caught Bannon in a vulnerable moment — or five.
    • Bannon is indeed trying to “burn it all down.” “Just as Trump's loyalty to the Republican Party has long been highly suspect, so too is Bannon's. There is a difference between being a partisan and being an ideologue, and Bannon is certainly the latter. And just as with Trump, he seems to regard chaos as a means to an end.”
    • Bannon is trying to distance himself from the Russia probe: “If Bannon does think Trump Jr. committed treason — or something short of that — perhaps he simply wants to put himself as far as possible from how the broader Russia investigation might view that meeting with a Russian lawyer. Bannon's name has been conspicuously missing from many of the developments in the Russia probe … but he's expected to be a key witness given his high-ranking roles[.]”

    THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

    -- The State Department announced it has placed Pakistan on a “watch list” of countries seen as “failing to protect religious freedom.” Though the step is a modest one, it symbolizes waning U.S. patience with the country — and comes as tensions have ratcheted up to an all-time high after Trump accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” in a tweet earlier this week.

    -- BIGGER PICTURE: The mounting feud between the United States and Pakistan poses an “unusually serious” threat to the fragile alliance — and could potentially trigger a breakdown in cooperation on the war in Afghanistan and nuclear safety. Missy Ryan and Annie Gowen report: “The Trump administration, led by senior officials known for taking a hard line on Pakistan, has been considering a range of punitive measures to force Islamabad to eliminate safe havens used by militants blamed for stoking violence in Afghanistan. [But] experts say that Trump’s penchant for public shaming and Pakistani leaders’ need to demonstrate their strength ahead of elections this year have increased the potential for an explosive cycle of retaliation.

    -- Trump and South Korea’s president agreed to postpone a joint military exercise until after the Winter Olympics. Dan Lamothe and Simon Denyer report: “The Olympics will be held in PyeongChang, a mountainous section of South Korea that is just 60 miles south of the tense Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)[.] … Trump and [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] discussed their options Thursday in a phone call. The White House said in a statement that Moon and Trump agreed to ‘de-conflict’ the Olympics and the military exercise so the United States and South Korea ‘can focus on ensuring the security of the Games.’ The statement avoided saying that the exercise was postponed.”

    -- North and South Korea are slated to begin talks for the first time in two years next Tuesday, ahead of the Olympics. Simon Denyer reports: “But beyond such sports diplomacy, officials and experts from Washington to Tokyo remain very wary. They are suspicious of [Kim Jon Un’s] motives, noting that he vowed to spend this year mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

    -- Meanwhile, the CDC is planning a briefing later this month on preparing for nuclear war. The posting for the Jan. 16 briefing notes that, while such an event is “unlikely,” “planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness.” (Politico)

    SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

    Trump reiterated his immigration policy demands after a meeting with Senate Republicans:

    Trump later criticized media coverage amid stock market gains:

    He also slammed Michael Wolff and created a new nickname for Steve Bannon (“Sloppy Steve"):

    From George W. Bush's former press secretary Dana Perino:

    From Joe Biden's former chief of staff:

    From the Boston Globe's deputy Washington bureau chief:

    From the co-president of the Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group:

    The White House press secretary addressed Bannon's fate, per an NBC correspondent: 

    The former communications director for the Republican National Committee and a longtime senior congressional aide called Sanders's statement chilling:

    From a top GOP strategist:

    From a New York Times reporter:

    Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) celebrated the end of Trump's voting commission:

    A Columbia Law professor reflected on the latest Russia probe developments:

    The White House press briefing included this moment:

    And some Twitter users rejoiced in the look that Sen. Doug Jones's son gave Vice President Pence as the Alabama Democrat was sworn in this week:

    From a BuzzFeeder:

    GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

    -- Politico Magazine, “Can Washington Be Automated?” by Nancy Scola: “This kind of data-crunching might sound hopelessly wonky, a kind of baseball-stats-geek approach to Washington. But if you’ve spent years attempting to make sense of the Washington information ecosystem—which can often feel like a swirling mass of partially baked ideas, misunderstandings and half-truths—the effect is mesmerizing. FiscalNote takes a morass of documents and history and conventional wisdom and distills it into a precise serving of understanding, the kind on which decisions are made. … If you’re an aide, one of the people walking on the street outside from a power breakfast to a meeting on the Hill, there’s another way to think about what FiscalNote is doing: It’s doing your job.”

    -- New York Times, “‘Forget About the Stigma’: Male Nurses Explain Why Nursing Is a Job of the Future for Men,” by Claire Cain Miller and Ruth Fremson: “The experiences of male nurses offer lessons that could help address a problem of our time: how to prepare workers for the fastest-growing jobs, at a time when more than a quarter of adult men are not in the labor force. … Women have been entering male-dominated fields for decades, but it’s less common for a predominantly female occupation to have a substantial increase in its share of men. Yet the jobs that are shrinking tend to be male ones, and those that are growing are mostly female.”

    -- New York Times, “Inside a Suicide Hotline Fighting Growing Despair in Puerto Rico”: “Months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a Times reporter visits a suicide prevention center where calls are on the rise.”

    HOT ON THE LEFT

    “Ellen DeGeneres roasts Eric Trump for his ‘crazy’ conspiracy theory,” from Helena Andrews-Dyer: “[T]he affable talk show queen responded to Trump’s suggestion, via Twitter of course, that the comedian was a member of ‘the deep state,’ an alleged group of liberal puppet masters yanking political strings. ‘So, I have some questions: First of all, which one is Eric? Did he kill the elephant or the cheetah?’ asked DeGeneres, who pledged in November to donate funds to a wildlife nonprofit in response to President Trump’s questioning of whether to allow elephant hunting trophies. ‘Second, what is ‘deep state’? Is it near Dollywood? ’Cause I’m in, if it is,’ she continued. … [DeGeneres] added that Trump’s claim was ‘the craziest thing I’ve seen all week.’ ... But why isn’t the Queen of Kind in on the latest political plot twist? She just doesn’t have that kind of time. ‘I’ve got my gay agenda meetings on Mondays. On Wednesday, Beyoncé and I host an Illuminati brunch,’ DeGeneres joked.”

     

    HOT ON THE RIGHT:

    “FCC Chairman Ajit Pai canceled his appearance at CES because of death threats,” from Recode: “Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai canceled his scheduled appearance at a major upcoming tech industry trade show after receiving death threats, two agency sources told Recode on Thursday. It’s the second known incident in which Pai’s safety may have been at risk, after a bomb threat abruptly forced the chairman to halt his controversial vote to scrap the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules in December 2017. For both Pai and the whole of the FCC, the uptick in security concerns also presents a serious challenge to their ability to discuss critical tech policy issues in public view … [Recently, tensions] have been especially high, driven in no small part by broader frustrations among the public with the Trump administration writ large.”

     

    DAYBOOK:

    Trump leaves for Camp David today to participate in the Congressional Republican Leadership Retreat, which Pence will also attend.

    QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

    Former press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged he “screwed up” by pushing false information about Trump’s inauguration crowd. “There were times where I screwed up, there’s no question about it,” he told HLN’s S.E. Cupp during an interview. Citing examples, Spicer said, “The inauguration, you brought it up. There was an event where I was trying to talk about how evil Assad was and I screwed that up royally.” (Time)

     

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

    -- The establishment of Metro’s safety oversight group is still months away, despite a 2017 deadline. Faiz Siddiqui reports: “Regional leaders aimed to establish the Metro Safety Commission by the end of 2017 but have been held up by the search for an executive director and the need to seat commissioners to the six-member panel.”

    -- The Smithsonian is getting pushback over plans to redevelop the area around its Castle. Peggy McGlone reports: “The $2 billion plan is intended to increase the area’s visibility from the Mall, add such visitor amenities as restrooms and food service, and improve its accessibility and circulation.”

    VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

    Trevor Noah encouraged Trump to embrace Michael Wolff's book:

    Seth Meyers, who is hosting the Golden Globes, discussed how he would address Hollywood's sexual harassment scandals:

    The "bomb cyclone" caused flooding in Boston:

    The frigid temperatures forced conservation crews to rescue sea turtles from the Florida waters:

    But another animal, a red panda at New York's Trevor Zoo, seemed utterly unaffected by the weather: