With Scott Clement, Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: If it felt like a tsunami was headed for Republicans at the end of the year, now it’s looking more like a normal wave. Under the radar, a flurry of new public polls points to incremental improvements in GOP fortunes and challenges the narrative that has been gelling in most of the media’s campaign coverage.

There has been a small but significant rise in President Trump’s approval rating over the past month and a shrinking Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot, which is moving closer to a level where Republicans could hold onto the House.

Growing support for the tax bill, enacted just before Christmas, is a major factor. The State of the Union and the government shutdown may have also helped.

A Quinnipiac University poll published Wednesday showed that a generic Democrat leads a generic Republican by nine points, down from 14 points in early December.

The Democratic lead among independents has weakened on this important barometer. Polls in January from Monmouth University, CNN/SSRS and Marist all showed Democrats and Republicans nearly tied among independent registered voters on the generic ballot, a flip from December when each showed Democrats leading by double digits.

“The improving poll numbers and growing GOP confidence isn't an accident,” said Kevin Seifert, the executive director of Speaker Paul Ryan's political operation. “This development is happening because Americans are recognizing that Democrats overplayed their hand on tax reform. As companies dole out bonuses, raise wages for workers, and families see the positive impact that this law is having on their lives, they understand that the Republican House majority is working for them.”

-- The new Quinnipiac poll puts Trump’s approval rating at 40 percent among registered voters, up from 35 percent in early December. The percentage approving “strongly” is 30 percent, up five points from early December and his highest level since last March. (To be sure, 55 percent still disapprove.)

Fifty-one percent approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, while 43 percent disapprove. This is the first time in Trump’s presidency that a majority has approved of his economic stewardship in Quinnipiac polling and compares with a negative 44-51 split in mid-December.

For the first time, more voters say Trump is responsible for the current state of the economy than Barack Obama, by a 48 percent to 41 percent margin. This is a flip from January when voters said by nine points that Obama was more responsible for the economy’s condition, and from December and November when the public was more evenly split.

A striking 70 percent rated the economy as excellent or good, up 14 points from January and up 24 points from January 2017. The size of the recent shift might raise an eyebrow as possibly a one-poll fluke, but the overall direction is clear. A big question has been whether Trump can take credit for it, and both the above findings above suggests he is increasingly doing so.

More still disapprove than approve of the Republican tax plan, but approval is up from 26 percent in mid-December to 39 percent in Quinnipiac’s new poll, while 47 percent currently disapprove.

One reason Trump’s 40 percent approval number is striking is that the same survey, using the same methodology, gave Trump some of his weakest numbers last year. His approval rating bottomed out at 33 percent last summer.

-- This is not an outlier. The Q poll mirrors what a flurry of other reputable organizations have shown: Trump got a bump in January after the dregs of December.

  • Gallup’s latest tracking poll puts Trump’s approval rating at 40 percent, his highest number since last May and up five points from mid-December. “The increase last week was coincident with the … State of the Union address,” writes Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport. “Although it is impossible to determine definitively whether the address was a factor in the approval ratings uptick, his approval among Republicans did rise to 90 [percent], the highest rating from this group since he took office.”
  • Monmouth pegged Trump’s approval at 42 percent in a survey conducted right after the shutdown (Jan. 28-30), with 50 percent disapproving. That’s up from 32-56 in December. (They were a low outlier then, and they’re a high outlier now, so this probably overstates the trend a little.)
  • Fox News put Trump at 45-53 approve-disapprove in a survey that was in the field during and after the shutdown, compared to 38-57 in October.
  • CNN-SSRS had Trump at 40-55 approve-disapprove just before the shutdown, compared to 35-59 in December.

-- The Washington Post-ABC News poll has not yet picked up this shift. (We had Trump’s approval at 36-58 in mid-January, compared to 37-59 in November.) Neither has the Wall Street Journal-NBC or CBS News surveys.

-- The election is still not for nine months, an eternity in Trump time. Continuing volatility in the polls is a safe bet. The president’s party almost always loses a lot of House seats during his first midterm election, and no Republican argues that won’t happen in 2018. The question is whether they’ll lose 24, which would cost them their majority.

The generic ballot, which measures support for an unnamed Democratic or Republican candidate for Congress in a voter’s home district, is a valuable indicator of how many seats each party might win if the election were held today. But interpretation can be complicated. Most election forecasters and analysts estimate that Democrats need a six- to eight- point advantage in the generic ballot to have a shot at winning the House majority. Some Democratic operatives think they realistically need a number that’s closer to the double digits to win the House. Since 1994, generic ballots have underestimated the Republicans’ margin in the popular House vote by an average of 3.5 percentage points.

-- “What you’re seeing publicly is what I am seeing privately,” said Corry Bliss, who runs the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC backed by House GOP leadership. “I am seeing undeniable improvement since Jan. 1 that’s being driven by the tax bill. … The higher the president’s approval rating heading into the election, the better it is for Republicans. … But the most important thing for Republicans to keep the House is to convince the middle class we’ve cut their taxes. In November, If the middle class does not think we’ve cut their taxes, there’s no positive outcome for Republicans. Period. End of discussion. … Right now, the answer is still no. Every member of the party should spend all their time, money and energy selling the tax bill. Talking about other things is not productive.”

-- The National Republican Congressional Committee conducted a survey across a mix of 40 House districts, including 30 that are competitive, during the second week of January that showed Republicans trailing by only four points on the generic ballot. Party officials said the tax bill was above water and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was more unpopular than any other political figure.

“It’s not just the generic ballot,” said NRCC communications director Matt Gorman. “We’re also seeing district-level polling in a solid spot generally. In California and the Midwest, we’re seeing some individual races where the head-to-head looks better, the generic ballot looks better, and approval of national Republican politicians is better.

-- Meredith Kelly, the communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said her team focuses less on the ups and downs of national surveys than fielding top-flight candidates who can defeat GOP incumbents.

“Equally important, if not more important, [than the generic ballot] is that our district-specific data is really bad for Republicans,” she said. “We already have several district-specific polls that show the named Republican losing to the named challenger right off the bat. There’s another category where the named incumbent is winning right now in a head-to-head, but only earns in the mid to low 40s — a weak starting off point. There are other Democrats starting well behind the Republican, but even in those races, we have a lot of time and data that shows a lot of room for growth for the Democrats, who start out much lesser known.”

Kelly pointed to the success of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who toppled longtime GOP incumbent John Mica in 2016 despite being almost totally unknown in the Orlando-area district when she announced her candidacy. She had an impressive story to tell as a refugee from Vietnam whose family was rescued by the U.S. Navy and grew up to work as a national security specialist at the Defense Department. Kelly said there are a lot of outsiders running in 2018 who have unique profiles a la Murphy’s. “That’s why our recruits matter so much,” she said. “We’re trying to find candidates who can win regardless of if there’s a wave.”

-- Always take partisan polls from both sides with a grain of salt. Assessing the polling, including private surveys from both sides in individual states and districts, prognosticator Charlie Cook wrote last week that the signs still “point very clearly toward a Democratic wave.”

“The questions is whether it will last until November and how big will it be,” he wrote for National Journal. “Historically in wave elections — particularly 1994, 2006, and 2010 — the close races break overwhelmingly in one direction and the seat gains/losses tend to end up being larger than expected. The seat-by-seat analysis that works well in ‘normal’ years almost invariably understates what ends up happening.” 

-- The Republican National Committee uses private survey research to assist with voter modeling. Over the course of January, RNC pollsters asked voters in seven 2018 battleground states whether they agreed with the statement that the tax law “will benefit people like me.” The data team found positive impressions ticking up as the month went on. Marginally more people answered yes than no in Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Ohio and Florida. (Agree-disagree questions can overestimate agreement with a statement regardless of its content, a tendency known as acquiescence bias.)

The RNC has already deployed field staff in 23 states and trained 7,500 “super activists” to help drive the message that the cuts are helping.

The party is also thrashing its Democratic counterpart in the money chase. The Democratic National Committee raised just $5.2 million in December, compared to the RNC’s $11.2 million. The RNC has $38.8 million cash on hand, compared to $6.5 million for the DNC (whose debt increased last month from $2.6 million to $6.1 million).

“The American people like Republican policies and, even better, they believe that we are the party that is fighting for them,” said RNC press secretary Cassie Smedile. “Our fundraising advantage, combined with our permanent, data-driven field program, puts us in prime position to defend our majorities.”

-- “For all the spinning and posturing there remains a fundamental challenge for the Republicans: the tax bill won’t become more popular unless the president becomes more popular,” writes Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. “In fact, if you look at national support for the tax legislation, you will see that it lines up almost exactly with voters’ overall perception of the president. In other words, if you like the president, you like the tax reform legislation. If you don’t like Trump, you either don’t like the bill or you are undecided about it. It is a reminder that whatever the president touches carries his polarizing brand. Even as voters are overwhelmingly positive about the economy, it doesn’t translate to their opinions of the president or the tax law.”

-- Election handicapper Kyle Kondik from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics notes that the GOP percentage on the generic ballot has tracked more and more closely with Trump’s approval rating. There have been a few surveys where the Republicans have run a little ahead of Trump, but mostly they run even or behind. “So Trump’s improvement is felt in the generic ballot, but let’s also remember that approval in the low 40s is still weak historically,” said Kondik. “He probably needs to get higher for Republicans to really feel better about their position, at least in the House. … If Republicans are in the position of relying on a significant number of undecided Trump disapprovers to swing to them at the end, they may very well be disappointed.”

Kondik thinks Republicans are rallying around the president partly out of political calculus. “If Trump and the GOP’s electoral standing are truly tied at the hip — and I think the history of midterm elections suggests that they are — than congressional Republicans have a real incentive to do what they can to juice the president’s numbers,” he emailed. “Supporting him as opposed to criticizing him seems like a surer path to trying to do that.”

-- Other red flags make Republicans nervous. Democrats have been winning special elections in places Trump carried handily two years ago, from Wisconsin last month to Missouri on Tuesday night. The opposition’s success in the November off-year elections, especially in Virginia, suggested that liberals are more enthusiastic about voting than conservatives.

-- During a presentation last Thursday night at the GOP retreat, NRCC chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) told lawmakers that party officials have interviewed most of the delegates who lost in Virginia. Many hadn’t faced a real race before, he explained, and they didn’t run real campaigns. They also allowed themselves to be outspent, and they allowed the races to become a referendum on them. And he said the GOP incumbents in the local races lacked a foil as polarizing and powerful for motivating the base as Pelosi.

The three main takeaways of his presentation were that members need to be ready, sell the tax cuts, and run a real campaign, according to someone who attended the session.

“What we’re telling our folks is to learn from the stimulus,” the NRCC’s Gorman told me last night. “In 2009, Obama passed the stimulus and immediately moved on to health care. People wanted jobs and were worried about the economy, but he didn’t sell it. So in 2010, the stimulus was unsalvageable politically. John Boehner could ask: Where are the jobs? We’re telling our members to keep selling … and relate everything back to tax reform.”

-- DCCC officials predict that health care will reemerge as a top issue later in the year. “They’re talking about running on taxes because they’ve got nothing else. It’s the only thing they’ve done to show that they know how to pass legislation with full control of Washington,” said Kelly. “The other thing to consider is that health care is going to be back in the forefront closer to the election. They’re now responsible for increasing premiums this year. Whatever the tax bill amounts to, I can almost guarantee premium increases are going to be worse for many people.”

Other operatives on the left said it’s imperative that their candidates continue to make the case against the tax bill or it will become more popular. “If they allow Republican lies and spin to go unanswered, they will lose,” said Tim Hogan from Not One Penny, a progressive advocacy group focused on mobilizing opposition to the tax bill. “If they fight, and Democrats position themselves as willing to repeal the most egregious tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, they will win. Democrats must define the fight over the tax bill or the Koch brothers will.”

“National polling numbers matter, but we're talking about a snapshot in time,” added Jeb Fain from the Democratic outside group House Majority PAC. “The fundamental factors favoring Democrats are strong and consistent: unprecedented grassroots energy and enthusiasm, top-notch candidates stepping up across the country and outraising GOP incumbents, not to mention a wave of Republican retirements indicative of the disaster facing their party.” 

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

THE WHITE HOUSE IS IN DAMAGE CONTROL MODE:

-- Trump’s staff secretary Rob Porter, one of the most powerful people in the West Wing, announced his resignation following allegations of physical and emotional abuse from two of his ex-wives. Josh Dawsey, Beth Reinhard and Elise Viebeck report: “[Porter] functioned as [White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s] top enforcer in their shared mission to instill discipline and order … He was the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, determining which articles and policy proposals reached the president’s hands and screening the briefing materials that his visitors shared with him. Aides had been aware generally of accusations against Porter for at least several weeks, White House advisers said, but learned of the specifics late Tuesday[.] Porter [said then] that he would resign . . . But he was talked out of it by Kelly and others … with Kelly saying he believed Porter’s denials and saw him as a valuable ally in the White House. Kelly continued to press him to stay in his job Wednesday, saying he could weather the storm, but Porter decided the controversy had become too much after the photos of his ex-wife’s blackened eye appeared[.]”

  • “[In interviews], Porter’s ex-wives described him as having a dark side and, at times, a violent streak . . . Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, said in an interview that he was continually abusive during their marriage.” She provided photos showing her black eye, which allegedly occurred after he punched her in the face during a 2005 trip to Florence.
  • “One of Porter’s ex-wives, Jennifer Willoughby, received a temporary emergency protective order in June 2010 after saying he refused to leave her residence in violation of their separation agreement. The document … concludes that ‘reasonable grounds exist to believe that [Porter] has committed family abuse and there is probable danger of a further such offense.’”

“When the allegations were published Tuesday, the White House mobilized to defend Porter. White House communications director Hope Hicks is dating Porter, according to people familiar with the relationship, and was involved in the White House’s defense of Porter on Tuesday evening.”

-- Kelly’s original statement on the allegations — calling Porter “a man of true integrity and honor” and a “trusted professional” — has left West Wing insiders once again questioning the chief of staff’s judgment. Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman writes: “Kelly’s decision to go to bat for Porter deeply frustrated White House staffers, sources told me. He was supposed to be the West Wing’s resident grown-up, but staffers are increasingly questioning Kelly’s judgment, four Republicans close to the White House told me. ‘It’s beyond disbelief. Everyone is trying to figure out why Kelly is leading the charge to save him,’ one former West Wing official said. Another Republican said: ‘How many times has Kelly put out a statement defending Trump?’ … Even before the blowback from the Porter statement, the White House was struggling to walk back Kelly’s inflammatory comments on immigration. Yesterday, Kelly said on Capitol Hill that some undocumented immigrants were ‘too lazy’ to sign up for [DACA.]”

-- Under fire, Kelly issued a statement late last night saying he was “shocked” by the Porter revelations. “There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” the former Marine general said. “I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation. I accepted his resignation earlier today, and will ensure a swift and orderly transition.” (Politico)

-- Trying to keep out of it, Vice President Pence told reporters on his Asia trip he would not comment until after he returned to the United States. (AP)

-- “There’s only ever really one story arc in Washington. A new face arrives in town, impresses people, and reaches dizzying new heights. Before too long, however, the capital becomes disillusioned and turns on him,” The Atlantic’s David A. Graham writes. “That’s the story of [Porter] … And more broadly, it’s also the story of John Kelly, [Porter’s] boss and defender. If Kelly did not know about the allegations in Porter’s past, then his unflinching defense is a matter of bad judgment, but there are reasons to believe that Kelly should have known. Both of Porter’s ex-wives [said] they had informed FBI agents vetting Porter about the past abuse. A senior administration official also told Politico that Kelly was aware of a 2010 protective order against Porter … In the wake of his defense of Porter, his ‘lazy’ comments, and his intervention in the immigration debate, many observers who had stubbornly clung to hopes that Kelly would deliver the nation from chaos are finally abandoning those hopes. It’s Washingtonian physics: What goes up must come down.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. The FBI released findings indicating Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Martinez’s November death was accidental. Trump claimed Martinez was “killed” and used his death as evidence for the need to erect a border wall. (Robert Moore and Nick Miroff
  2. The prosecutor pursuing the case against Colts player Edwin Jackson’s alleged killer blasted Trump’s comments on the tragedy. “We are disheartened that ghoulish and inappropriate public commentary has politicized this tragedy,” said Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry, a Democrat. (Matt Bonesteel)
  3. Pro-government forces in Syria attacked a base with U.S. troops present, prompting a counterattack from U.S. aircraft. About 100 pro-government fighters were killed in the counterattack, which represents one of the only direct U.S. assaults on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung)
  4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested in a Facebook video that police could implicate him in an ongoing corruption probe. Netanyahu sought to reassure supporters that possible bribery and breach of trust charges against him “would amount to nothing.” His video message came as the Israeli press reported police would recommend that Netanyahu be indicted. (Loveday Morris)
  5. After hosting shows on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, Greta Van Susteren is getting her own show on Voice of America. The veteran news anchor joined VOA as a contributor in the fall and will be doing her new show on a volunteer basis. It’s currently being billed as a “30 minute deep-dive into America’s relationships with the world.” (The Hollywood Reporter)
  6. As extreme weather events continue to ravage forests in California, scientists are turning to the state’s redwood trees. Researchers hope that the complex genetic code contained inside the towering timbers could also hold the key to their preservation. (Scott Wilson)
  7. A groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton known as Cheddar Man revealed that some of the first modern Britons had blue eyes — and “dark to black” skin. Researchers now believe that Cheddar Man’s ancestors arrived in Britain via the Middle East after leaving Africa. (Jennifer Hassan)
  8. The Tucson Airport Authority released footage of a woman officials say left her newborn son in an airport bathroom. A note left with the baby read, “I just want what is best for him and it is not me. Please. Im sorry.” (Alex Horton)

SAVED FROM ANOTHER SHUTDOWN (MOST LIKELY):

-- Congress is slated to vote today on a two-year budget deal delivering massive increases to defense programs sought by Trump and GOP lawmakers and an increase in domestic programs sought by Democrats — ending months of partisan wrangling. Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner report: “Trump backed the deal Wednesday, saying in a tweet that it would give [Defense Secretary Jim Mattis] ‘what he needs to keep America Great’ and calling on lawmakers of both parties to ‘support our troops and support this Bill!’ The Senate is expected to vote first on the plan, clearing it Thursday afternoon or evening — giving the House just hours to act before a midnight deadline for a government shutdown. But the deal offered another reminder that GOP lawmakers, many of whom were elected on a promise to shrink government and curb spending, have abandoned those pledges after gaining power and facing the reality of governing and delivering on competing political priorities.” (Sean Sullivan has a rundown on everything in the deal.)

Several Republicans voiced their objections to the plan on Wednesday:

  • “This spending bill is a debt junkie’s dream,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), warning that it would set up “trillion-dollar-a-year deficits.” “I’m not only a no, I’m a hell no.”
  • And Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) noted the deal would deliver more military funding than Trump had requested in his 2018 budget proposal. “I’m all for supporting our military, and I want to make sure they’re funded properly,” he said. “It’s very difficult to have that big of an increase in one year and then be able to use it wisely.”

-- Passage of the deal would symbolize a major break for Republicans from fiscal conservatism. Damian Paletta and Erica Werner report: “Republican lawmakers in 2011 brought the U.S. government to the brink of default, refused to raise the debt ceiling, demanded huge spending cuts, and insisted on a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. On Wednesday, they formally broke free from those fiscal principles and announced a plan that would add $500 billion in new spending over two years and suspend the debt ceiling until 2019. This came several months after Republicans passed a tax law that would add more than $1 trillion to the debt over a decade. With all these changes, the annual gap between spending and revenue in 2019 is projected to eclipse $1.1 trillion, up from $439 billion in 2015.”

PELOSI SPEAKS:

-- Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave a rare, filibuster-style speech on the House floor for more than eight hours as part of a bid to force action on legislation to protect “dreamers.” Ed O'Keefe, David Weigel and Paul Kane report: “Her more than eight-hour speech ranked as the longest given by a member of the [House] in at least a century, possibly ever, focusing on an issue that has dominated the Democratic agenda in recent months. But it also came as her caucus began three days of closed-door meetings to craft a 2018 agenda that can win wider appeal in November’s elections. As Pelosi spoke on the House floor, [Joe Biden] warned in a speech to House Democrats that the party is engaged in a ‘false debate’ over the fight between defending cultural diversity and fighting for working-class job and wage growth. Elsewhere on Capitol Hill …. moderate Democratic senators seeking reelection in states [Trump won] urged Pelosi to support an impending budget agreement despite concerns with immigration policy. The contrasts highlighted the Democrats’ 2018 dilemma: How to keep promises to a base that feels under attack from Trump and Republicans, while pivoting to an economic message that can help them win back Congress.

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- George W. Bush said “there’s pretty clear evidence that the Russians meddled” in the 2016 election. The former president made the comments during a talk in Abu Dhabi, adding, “it’s problematic that a foreign nation is involved in our election system. Our democracy is only as good as people trust the results.” (AP)

-- The top U.S. official tasked with protecting American elections from foreign interference told NBC News the Russians “successfully penetrated” voter rolls in several U.S. states before the 2016 election. NBC News’s Cynthia McFadden, William M. Arkin, and Kevin Monahan report: “Jeanette Manfra, the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, said she couldn't talk about classified information publicly, but in 2016, ‘We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.’ Jeh Johnson, who was DHS secretary during the Russian intrusions, said, ‘2016 was a wake-up call and now it's incumbent upon states and the Feds to do something about it before our democracy is attacked again.’”

-- Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson said Russia is “already” attempting to influence this year’s midterms — and warned the United States is not necessarily now better prepared to protect against foreign meddling. NBC News’s Alex Johnson reports: “In an interview with Fox News … Tillerson said Russia was gearing up to meddle in the 2018 U.S. elections following the playbook it used in 2016. Saying Russia has ‘a lot of different tools’ at its disposal, he said: ‘I don't know that I would say we are better prepared, because the Russians will adapt, as well. The point is, if it's their intention to interfere, they are going to find ways to do that. We can take steps, but this is something that, once they decide they are going to do it, it's very difficult to preempt it.’ Tillerson said it was 'important that we continue to say to Russia: 'Look, if you think we don't see what you're doing, we do see it, and you need to stop. If you don't, you're just going to continue to invite consequences for yourself.'”

-- In addition to Facebook and Twitter, Russian trolls also dominated the blogging platform Tumblr in the run-up to the 2016 election. The trolls generated hundreds of thousands of anti–Hillary, pro–Bernie interactions and posted divisive messages aimed at highlighting racial injustice in the United States. BuzzFeed News’s Craig Silverman reports: “The Russian-run Tumblr accounts used the same, or very similar, usernames as the account names contained on a list of confirmed [ Russia-based Internet Research Agency] accounts Twitter submitted to congressional investigators. In some cases, the Tumblr and Twitter account [linked] to each other in their bios. Some … cross-promoted content between platforms, further linking them together.” “The evidence we've collected shows a highly engaged and far-reaching Tumblr propaganda-op targeting mostly teenage and twenty-something African Americans. This appears to have been part of an ongoing campaign since early 2015,” said Jonathan Albright, a top researcher at Columbia University.

-- Up to 60 representatives from Russia’s elite are expected to attend this morning’s National Prayer Breakfast, where Trump will deliver remarks. The number is a threefold increase from last year. (CNN)

-- Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) released a 25-page report including a text he claimed demonstrated Barack Obama’s interference with the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. But FBI officials said the text instead referred to a briefing on Russian election interference. The Wall Street Journal’s Del Quentin Wilber reports: “In his Wednesday report, Mr. Johnson pointed to a Sept. 2, 2016, exchange in which [former FBI agent Peter] Strzok and [bureau lawyer Lisa] Page were discussing talking points for then-FBI Director James Comey to deliver to Mr. Obama. ‘Potus wants to know everything we’re doing,’ Ms. Page said[.] … The associates of Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page said that exchange referred to the president’s wanting information on Russia election meddling[.] … In August and September 2016, the FBI was no longer actively investigating the Clinton matter[.]”

-- After Johnson released his report, Trump tweeted, “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!” He did not point to which specific texts he considered revelatory, an odd assertion given that many of the messages were already public. (Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian)

-- Lawyers for Rick Gates, ex-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort's former business partner, cited “irreconcilable differences” in their request to leave his defense team. Spencer S. Hsu reports: “[A] federal judge did not immediately rule on their request after a sealed hearing Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington took the matter under advisement after a nearly 90-minute hearing, held behind closed doors to preserve the secrecy of attorney-client communications[.] … In filings unsealed Wednesday, the lawyers said they wanted to discuss the reason for their request in secret because it involves private, ‘highly sensitive matters’ concerning Gates that ‘would potentially be prejudicial to the Defendant as well as embarrassing.’”

-- After pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI, George Papadopoulos has enjoyed a staunch defense from his fiancee, Simona MangianteEli Rosenberg writes: “From the role of a silent and mostly unknown partner, Mangiante has since emerged as one of Papadopoulos’s most vocal defenders, carrying out a lonely campaign to push back on attempts by the president and his allies to minimize her fiance’s role in Trump’s campaign. … ‘To be honest with you, I never meant to have this role at all. I never contacted any newspaper,’ she said in a phone interview. … ‘But of course, the intention is to deliver a more realistic picture of who George is, which has been distorted in media before.’”

THE #METOO MOMENT:

-- Oregon’s governor called on state Sen. Jeff Kruse to resign this week after an independent investigator found that the Republican lawmaker “repeatedly” groped women on the Senate floor and in the governor’s office, even after multiple warnings. Travis M. Andrews reports: “The 51-page report, compiled by private attorney Dian Rubanoff, found that Kruse exhibited a ‘long-standing pattern’ of ‘engaging in unwelcome physical contact toward females in the workplace.’ Rubanoff added that though Kruse, 66, was repeatedly confronted about his behavior, ‘he stubbornly refused to change.’ Kruse told Rubanoff, ‘It’s not easy to change when you have been doing something for 67 years.’ … He did some of these things even while cameras were rolling, the investigator found.” 

-- A former Maryland state legislative staffer testified about rampant misbehavior during her time in the capital — alleging that lawmakers and aides propositioned her, “rubbed against her” and stared at her body. Ovetta Wiggins reports: “When Del. Susan K. McComas (R-Harford) delicately asked how many lawmakers had ‘caused you problems,’ [Nina] Smith hesitated, and began to cry. The answer, she said a minute later, was six. ‘In the eight years I worked in Annapolis, I was touched without permission,’ Smith [said]. ‘There was a legislator who told me he wanted to perform a sexual act on me in front of a lobbyist. Another would reach out to me at the most inappropriate hours asking me to come to their room. One legislator rubbed his private parts on me. I started buttoning my blouses a little higher after I noticed that a chief of staff … wasn’t being friendly, he was looking down my shirt.’ Smith’s testimony to the caucus did not name any alleged harassers. But it was by far the most public airing to date of what women have privately described as a pervasive culture of misconduct in Maryland’s General Assembly[.]”

-- Officials in Virginia’s Fairfax County announced an investigation into alleged persistent sexual harassment at the county’s fire department. Justin Jouvenal reports: “Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley outlined the allegations in a scathing letter she submitted last month, announcing her resignation as interim director of the fire department’s women’s program. … The department is highly regarded nationally but has been dogged for years by complaints and lawsuits claiming female firefighters have been sexually harassed and top brass has done little to investigate or stem the problems.”

-- “From fellow soldier to 'monster' in uniform,” by CNN’s Zachary Cohen: “Army Spc. Sarah Reyes' instincts had always prompted her to run toward danger, not away from it. ‘I lived for it, and I was good at it,’ she said of her time as an Army combat medic, which included a nine-month stint in Afghanistan. But today, she is a different person. Reyes still fears talking about the night she says she was raped by a ‘monster’ disguised in combat fatigues at Ft. Stewart, Georgia -- a member of her own platoon who had served at her side while deployed overseas ...”

Like the vast majority of military victims who report crimes of sexual violence, Reyes said she remains dissatisfied with the way she was treated by investigators who decided not to pursue charges against the alleged assailant. Her experience is an illustration of what many survivors described as a broken system that they say perpetuates a culture that suppresses the reporting of sexually violent crimes.”

PERSONNEL IS POLICY:

-- Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has had wide-ranging impact on the president's policies, but his biggest accomplishment may be acting as a check on Trump’s impulsive instincts. From Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan: “The big question is how long Mattis can continue to act as a force for continuity and caution and still retain influence with a president impatient to hit back at America’s enemies and swiftly win wars. These days, Mattis’s influence radiates across the government. In places such as Afghanistan and Somalia, he has been a force for stability, resisting the president’s instincts to withdraw. In Iran and North Korea, he has curbed Trump’s desire for a show of military strength. … Mattis has been one of the least visible and most consequential members of Trump’s foreign policy team.”

  • One juicy anecdote: “In one chaotic Situation Room meeting on Afghanistan policy, [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster shouted at Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist at the time, accusing him of deliberately misrepresenting McMaster’s position. ‘You’re a liar!’ McMaster yelled, according to two officials at the meeting. Mattis ended the confrontation by grabbing McMaster’s knee and advising him to be quiet, the officials said. The scene prompted a shocked Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff at the time, to turn to a colleague and mouth ‘W.T.F.’”

-- Education Secretary Betsy DeVos boasted about the shrinking role of her department during her first year in office. Moriah Balingit reports: “She rolled back key regulations and guidance documents intended to protect transgender students, student borrowers and victims of sexual assault in the name of reining in a department whose role she believes had grown too large. She used budget cuts and buyouts to reduce the size of the agency. ‘Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,’ DeVos said Wednesday[.]”

-- Republican senators are holding up the confirmations of some Trump nominees. Politico’s Anthony Adragna reports: “At least 11 Republican senators in recent months have disclosed they’re blocking votes on nominees for agencies including the Energy, Agriculture, State, Homeland Security and Justice departments. The vast majority of those delays remain in place while the lawmakers demand concessions on issues such as ethanol regulations, marijuana, disaster funding and nuclear waste. … [T]he number coming from the GOP side is notable, especially as senior Republicans have raised the possibility of changing the Senate’s rules to make it harder for Democrats to block Trump’s appointees.”

-- Trump’s pick to lead the Office of Government Ethics received unexpected praise from Walter Shaub, who resigned from the post last year and has been a frequent critic of the administration. Nominee Emory Rounds has served in OGE since 2009. "Emory is an excellent choice," Shaub said. "He’s a good man who has devoted his life to public service. He will lead OGE ably." (Politico’s Josh Gerstein)

-- Former GOP Congressman Scott Garrett, whose nomination to lead the Export-Import Bank was defeated last year, will take on a role advising SEC Chairman Jay Clayton. Garrett’s second chance marks a rare occasion of a former lawmaker taking on a staff role within the administration. (The Wall Street Journal’s Dave Michaels and Andrew Ackerman)

-- Interest rate increases could chill economic growth and, as a result, Trump’s relationship with his new Fed chair, Jerome Powell. Bloomberg News's Peter Coy writes: “The long-expected clash between the Federal Reserve and the White House over interest rate policy kept getting postponed over the past year. The stock market climbed, the economy grew, and nothing the Fed did dampened the animal spirits. … That calm is emphatically over. Investors have come to believe that the Fed, under new leadership, is serious about raising rates to prevent inflationary overheating of the economy — and they’re scrambling to avoid the fallout. … If [this week’s Dow tumble] turns out to be more than a shudder, Trump may start looking for someone to blame. And that someone could be [Powell], who was sworn in as Fed chairman on Feb. 5.”

PARADE PUSHBACK:

-- Lawmakers balked at the cost of Trump’s desired military parade, following reports that the Pentagon and White House were working to coordinate possible dates for the high-dollar event. NBC News’s Dartunorro Clark reports:

  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called the idea a “fantastic waste of money to amuse the president.” “Take the money that the president would like to spend on this parade [and] instead, let’s make sure our troops are ready for battle and survive it and come home to their families,” Durbin said Wednesday morning on MSNBC.
  • And Rep. Lee Zeldin, (R-N.Y.) also expressed concern: “I don't believe we should have tanks or nuclear weapons going down Pennsylvania Avenue,” he told CNN on Tuesday night. “We need to fund the entire military for the rest of the year. The continuing resolutions are absolutely not the way to go, especially as it relates to funding the Department of Defense,” he added.

-- Meanwhile, D.C. officials are also not on board, worried about such a parade saddling them with responsibilities and security costs even if the federal government agreed to reimburse them. Fenit Nirappil and Peter Jamison report: “‘I don’t think anyone believes this would be about trying to honor men and women who serve our country,’ said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). ‘This would only be about feeding one man’s ego.’ Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said that if Trump holds a military parade, he would organize ‘an equally large parade and march for peace and for nonviolence’ to take place simultaneously. ‘Maybe this can be a rallying cry for people to come to the nation’s capital and have a demonstration for peace,’ he said.”

-- “[A military parade] is the primordial act of a state asserting its power and legitimacy, a spectacle to spark pride in the hearts of a leader's followers and fear in his enemies,” writes Ishaan Tharoor. “But given the indefinite U.S. commitment to wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, there's not much of a groundswell now for a giant march. … Such parades, after all, are more the preserve of nations such as North Korea, Russia and China, whose leaders still need these sometimes surreal displays of military strength to buttress their own rule.”

THE DECONSTRUCTION OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE STATE:

-- EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has routinely questioned climate science, now says climate change may not be so bad for the planet. “We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends,” Pruitt said during an interview with an NBC affiliate in Las Vegas. “So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100, in the year 2018? That’s fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100.” (Dino Grandoni, Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney)

-- State exchanges outperformed the federal marketplace for the 2018 Obamacare enrollment season. Amy Goldstein reports: “Overall enrollment stayed essentially level from the year before in the 11 states plus the District with state-based marketplaces, while sign-ups in states that rely on the ACA’s federal exchange fell, on average, by more than 5 percent. Five states with hybrid systems did best of all, according to a report compiled by the National Academy for State Health Policy. The data show that, nationwide, almost 11.8 million Americans chose ACA health plans for this year. The total is nearly a half-million fewer than for 2017 and about 900,000 fewer than in 2016[.] … But the modest decline is well short of the enrollment meltdown that many supporters and foes of the ACA had anticipated.”

-- A group of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials want to join the U.S. intelligence community, a move that would allow them access to secrets. The Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff reports: “Internal advocates for joining the America’s spy agencies … focus on the potential benefits to the agency’s work on counterproliferation, money laundering, counterterror, and cybercrime. … But civil liberties advocates and government watchdog groups ... are concerned at the prospect of the nation’s immigration enforcers joining the ranks of America’s spies. ‘The idea that ICE could potentially get access to warrantless surveillance is frankly terrifying,’ Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, [said].

-- Three Senate Democrats unveiled a report saying major corporations have already spent $100 billion this year buying back stocks from shareholders in the wake of the GOP tax bill’s passage. Jeff Stein reports: “ . . . Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that their new report shows that the benefits [from the tax bill] seen by workers pale in comparison to the gains being reaped by company shareholders and corporate executives. Citing survey data, they said 2 percent of adults say they received a bonus or a raise because of the tax law. … Wyden said he would be sending a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking for an additional report tracking the tax law's impacts, including on stock buybacks and on corporate repatriation.”

COUNTDOWN TO THE OLYMPICS:

-- Mike Pence is using his Asia trip to project a stance of zero tolerance toward North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Ashley Parker writes. “During his first year in President Trump’s administration, Pence primarily took on a behind-the-scenes, supporting role. But now, the vice president is taking a more prominent posture, at home and abroad, and is using this Asia trip to help drive the administration’s hard-line policy on North Korea. … On this trip, Pence plans to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan against Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime, as well as urge South Korea — which has been eager to open a diplomatic dialogue with North Korea — to take a tougher stance.”

-- North Korean officials said they have no plans to meet with Pence during the Olympics. Anna Fifield reports: “South Korean officials are understood to be trying to arrange a ‘brush past’ during the festivities in the hope of creating some goodwill between the two avowed enemies.”

-- Pence was so stung by the criticism from an openly gay figure skater, Adam Rippon, that his office went to the “extraordinary” length of requesting the U.S. Olympic Committee arrange a sit-down between the two ahead of his trip to PyeongChang. (Rippon declined the invitation.) USA Today’s Christine Brennan reports: “The spat between the vice president and the figure skater began when I asked Rippon last month about Pence’s selection for the ceremonial role of leading the U.S. delegation to the Olympic opening ceremony. ‘You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy? I’m not buying it,’ Rippon said. After reading the story online … Pence apparently was so concerned about Rippon’s comments that he then set in motion the attempt to speak with him. On Jan. 30, nearly two weeks after the dust-up, Rippon said that he was focusing solely on training for the upcoming Olympics. ‘I’m not trying to pick a fight with the vice president of the United States,’ he said.” Rippon has said he would consider meeting with Pence sometime after the Winter Games.

THE RESISTANCE:

-- Women veterans — most of them Democrats opposed to Trump’s agenda — are running for office in greater numbers than ever before. Mary Jordan reports: “Only four of the 535 members of Congress are female veterans, two Republicans and two Democrats. But at least 32 more women who served in the military are now campaigning for the House and Senate — 25 Democrats and seven Republicans, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Scores more are campaigning for statewide office and state legislative seats, many with the aim of running for Congress later.”

-- A coalition that raised money to stop Trump from winning the presidency has dedicated the majority of its expenditures to paying its own staff. The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay and Sam Stein report: “The Democratic Coalition … brought in nearly half a million dollars last year, [and paid more than half of that] to its employees or their consulting firms, according to [FEC] records. The breakdown in 2016 [was] even starker. That year, [staff] members received more than 90 percent of all of the Democratic Coalition’s expenditures, either personally or through a consulting company, according to FEC records.”

-- Twenty-two Democratic state attorneys general have emerged as the vanguard of the anti-Trump resistance, spearheading a string of lawsuits and complaints on such things as immigration, net neutrality and marijuana enforcement. Politico’s Lauren Dezenski reports: “The Democrats’ strategy is borne in part of a calculated decision to coordinate closely and emulate the way their Republican counterparts relentlessly battled the Obama administration[.] The results have been mixed … But for many attorneys general, it’s a political no-brainer: Leading or joining a legal fight against a Trump edict is winning politics in Democratic-leaning states, and the role of attorney general is often a stepping stone to governor or other offices.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Trump plugged a television producer before this morning’s National Prayer Breakfast:

He also analyzed the stock market's recent volatility:

Mitch McConnell urged lawmakers to approve the spending deal:

But many conservative lawmakers quickly came out against the legislation, encouraged by opposition from the Koch network, the Club for Growth and Heritage Action:

From the House Freedom Caucus:

From an NPR reporter:

Nancy Pelosi faced an added challenge in her filibuster-style speech, per an ABC News reporter:

From a former RNC chief of staff:

The resignation of Rob Porter forced Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to backtrack his previous statement. From a Wall Street Journal reporter:

Mike Pence told reporters he would not answer questions about Porter until he got back to Washington. From a Post columnist:

One of The Post's investigative reporters posed this question:

This photo was making the rounds (everyone in it who worked in the West Wing — except for Porter — is no longer there):

An editor for the Daily Mail, which broke the Porter story, provided new details:

From George W. Bush's former communications director:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) expressed support for Trump's idea of a military parade — with a caveat:

Or, as the Journal's Julie Bykowicz put it:

From C-SPAN's communications director:

Another Senate Republican opposed the idea, per an NBC News reporter:

One of the WSJ's editorial page editors had this smart take:

And speaking of:

Former congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.) threw this insult at Trump:

A Weekly Standard writer joked about the president's schedule:

The chief of staff to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp scolded GOP operatives looking to unseat the North Dakota Democrat:

The McCains said happy birthday to a matriarch:

CNN's Poppy Harlow had her baby:

And the governor of Maryland, who is in remission for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, underwent a minor procedure to treat skin cancer:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- Fast Company, “Trump Organization Revives Project In Dominican Republic, Roiling Local Politics,” by Marcus Baram: “Just last month, Trump’s partner on the island, the powerful Capa Cana Group, was granted permits and financial incentives to build 17 towers, including the Condos Playa Juanillo project, which has reportedly been linked to the Trump Organization. … But the project has stirred up plenty of controversy on the island, due to a proposal requested by the Cap Cana Group—and supported by the Dominican government—to dramatically increase the long-standing height restrictions of buildings on the coast, from 4 stories to 22 stories. … Government sources say the debate over the proposal, and the decision whether to grant approval to the Trump-affiliated project, has reached the highest levels, including the office of Dominican President Danilo Medina.”

-- Politico, “From Fallujah to FBI investigation: The undoing of Duncan Hunter,” by Rachael Bade and John Bresnahan: “The Justice Department is trying to determine whether hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hunter’s campaign account were spent improperly on his family and friends. … It’s a stark reversal of fortune for Hunter (R-Calif.), 41, whose friends once considered him a hero. The ex-Marine served three tours as an artillery officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting in some of the bloodiest battles in Fallujah. Now, the five-term lawmaker’s Republican colleagues worry that he’s on the brink of personal and political ruin. Some Republicans are urging GOP leaders to force him to retire, worried that his troubles could cost the party another seat in its uphill effort to maintain the House majority.”

-- New York Times, “A Driver’s Suicide Reveals the Dark Side of the Gig Economy,” by Ginia Bellafante: “On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery driver in his early 60s, killed himself with a shotgun in front of City Hall in Lower Manhattan, having written a lengthy Facebook post several hours earlier laying out the structural cruelties that had left him in such dire circumstance. Implicit in his testament was the anger he felt over the de-professionalization of his life’s work. Schifter had driven more than five million miles throughout his tenure, through five hurricanes and 50 snowstorms. He had chauffeured celebrities and worn a suit. He was not driving a car to supplement the income he was getting from his crepe business and he was not trying to make a little extra money for massage. He was not a participant in the gig economy; he was a casualty of it. For taxi drivers staring down an even bleaker future of driverless cars … it is hard to see where the metaphoric Prozac will come from.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“This Top Psychiatrist Says Anti-Gay Politicians Can Contribute To The Suicides Of LGBT People,” from BuzzFeed: “Politicians’ anti-gay policies and homophobic speech can play a role in the suicides of LGBT people, according to one of the world’s leading psychiatrists. [Professor Dinesh Bhugra], a former president of both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the World Psychiatric Association, [said] that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation ‘can contribute to suicide, suicidal ideation and self-harm’. There is, said Bhugra, ‘a very clear link between policy, social factors and psychiatric problems in LGBT groups’ with one of the three main causes of suicide being the social environment … [Bhugra's] remarks follow the decision last week of Belfast-based suicide prevention charity Lighthouse to suspend a board member for tweeting that the Democratic Unionist Party's opposition to equal rights leads to suicides.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Trump campaign releases ad calling Dem State of the Union response 'disgraceful,’” from The Hill: “[Trump’s] campaign on Tuesday released an ad highlighting the Democrats' response during Trump's first State of the Union address. The ad featured video of Trump's address to Congress [before panning to] the faces of some Democrats … sitting during Trump's address. The ad accused Democrats of ‘disrespecting our people’ and ‘disrespecting our country.’ ‘It's disgraceful,’ the ad says in text at the end. In a statement, Michal S. Glassner … said Trump's State of the Union address was so profound that ‘even the mainstream media called it 'strong' and 'inspirational.' ‘The breathtaking indifference in reaction to [Trump’s] calls for unity and to the President’s bold stories of freedom-loving heroes speaks for itself. The Democrats just sat there, and they were disgraceful,’” he said.

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump will spend his morning at the Washington Hilton, where he will meet with the president of Guatemala and give a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. He will later meet with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and have lunch with Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. He also has an afternoon meeting with Henry Kissinger. 

Pence is now in South Korea for his Asia trip.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

Joe Biden delivered the keynote address at House Democrats’ annual retreat, saying, “The president is looking out for himself only, and the Republican Party seems to be only looking out for the president. And so it’s our job to remind the American people that we’re looking out for them.”

 

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

-- Washingtonians will see sunshine and temperatures just above freezing today. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Freezing temperatures to start the day mean any wet spots from Wednesday will be icy, so be careful on that morning journey. Arctic air overwhelms the full day of sun, with highs only in the mid- to upper 30s.”

-- At least one school system — Prince William County Public Schools — is on a delay due to weather. Check here for an updated list.

-- Newseum executives will meet today with a top real estate firm to discuss possibly selling the museum’s building and relocating. Peggy McGlone and Manuel Roig-Franzia report: “The previously undisclosed talks with officials from the international firm Eastdil Secured … are the latest sign of uncertainty at an institution that has been swamped in debt and roiled by leadership shake-ups. The museum’s financial woes, including lackluster fundraising and the weight of its primary benefactor’s $300 million debt burden, have long prompted speculation that it would be forced to leave its grand location on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the Capitol, or close altogether. But Chief Operating Officer Scott Williams insisted in an interview Wednesday that its biggest supporter, the Freedom Forum, intends to keep the museum alive.”

-- A Southwest Airlines plane slid on a BWI taxiway. No injuries were reported from the incident, which occurred as the aircraft was getting ready to take off for Montego Bay, Jamaica. (Dana Hedgpeth)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Trevor Noah mocked Trump's military parade idea:

Stephen Colbert and John Oliver discussed Trump's motivation to host a military parade:

Former White House adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman officially entered the “Celebrity Big Brother” house:

Gerber chose a child with Down syndrome for its 2018 baby:

And golden retriever owners have tested their dogs' ability to hold an egg in their mouths without cracking it: