With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.
THE BIG IDEA: President Trump got the headlines he wanted this morning by signaling openness to modest gun-control measures, but will policy changes really follow?
Reacting to the “evil massacre” that left 17 dead at a Florida high school last week, Trump directed the Justice Department on Tuesday to draft a proposed ban on the devices known as “bump stocks.” Then he tweeted that Democrats and Republicans “must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!” And his press secretary told reporters that raising the minimum age at which a person could buy a semiautomatic weapon from 18 to 21 is “on the table for us to discuss.”
“We’re working very hard to make sense of these events,” Trump said during an afternoon medal ceremony at the White House. “I met with some of the survivors and their families, and I was moved — greatly moved, greatly moved — by their strength, their resilience. … We must do more to protect our children.”
-- Trump wants to project that he is a man of action, and it’s no wonder why: A Washington Post-ABC News survey, conducted after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., found that only 29 percent of Americans think the president is doing enough to prevent mass shootings. Sixty-two percent fault him for not doing more.
A Quinnipiac University poll, also published yesterday, showed 66 percent of Americans now support stricter gun laws, the highest number since 2008 and even higher than after the 2013 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The outspokenness of the student survivors, which I wrote about in yesterday’s 202, makes it politically untenable to just look the other way. The president watches cable news obsessively, and he’s been pilloried on television by these kids for days now.
He’s also a visual learner. Remember, he decided to bomb Syria last year after seeing pictures of gassed children. The images out of Florida, a state he proudly carried in 2016, have been heartbreaking.
That’s why some in his orbit think that he might be having a true change of heart. After all, until he got serious about running for president, Trump supported an assault weapons ban and longer waiting periods. He once attacked Republicans for being beholden to the National Rifle Association.
So far, though, nothing Trump is talking about publicly puts him crosswise with the NRA, which spent more than $30 million to help elect him. “You came through big for me, and I am going to come through for you,” he promised at the group’s convention last year. “To the NRA, I can proudly say I will never, ever let you down.”
-- “In private, he has indicated that he might do more, telling advisers and friends in recent days that he is determined to push for some sort of gun-control legislation,” Jenna Johnson, Mark Berman and Josh Dawsey report on today’s front page. “In one such discussion, during dinner with television commentator Geraldo Rivera at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, the president listened with interest as Rivera suggested raising the minimum age at which a person could buy a semiautomatic weapon … [B]ehind the scenes, Trump is floating ideas that could put him at odds with the NRA.”
-- But the possibility should not be discounted that Trump is also trying to buy time, floating changes to the law with the expectation that his administration won’t follow through once the pressure comes off and the public’s focus moves to other issues. Trump plans to meet later today with students, teachers and parents who were affected by mass shootings, including Parkland.
-- It cannot be said enough: Watch what he does, not what he says. As Trump himself acknowledged yesterday, “The key in all of these efforts ... is that we cannot merely take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make a difference. We must move past clichés and tired debates and focus on evidence-based solutions and security measures that actually work.”
-- The devil, as always, is in the details. It’s conceivable that Trump will do with guns what he’s already done this year on immigration. He offered a pathway to citizenship for the “dreamers,” but only if he got dramatic cuts in legal immigration and his border wall. Then he refused to compromise. On guns, if pushed by hard-liners and his base, he could dangle modest reforms that Democrats want in exchange for advancing NRA priorities like concealed-carry reciprocity and scaling back restrictions on silencers. Both would be poison pills that prove this exercise is more about politics than public safety.
-- Law enforcement officials say bump stocks weren’t used in Parkland last week. The devices entered the public consciousness because last Oct. 1 in Las Vegas a single shooter was able to kill 58 people and wound hundreds more during a country music festival because he had 14 AR-15s with bump stocks. (The Florida shooter also used an AR-15, but authorities say it wasn’t modified.)
“A bump stock is a piece of plastic or metal molded to the lower end of a rifle. The device allows a shooter to fire dozens of rounds in seconds by harnessing the gun’s natural recoil,” former Army infantryman Alex Horton explains in a piece with Julie Vitkovskaya.
Just like now, Trump got the headlines he wanted in the aftermath of Las Vegas by announcing that he was open to a ban on bump stocks. “We'll be looking at that in the next short period of time,” he declared nearly five months ago now.
“I expect that these critical regulations will be finalized ... very soon” is how he put it yesterday.
The mainstream media, especially television news, largely covered Trump’s October announcement as a breakthrough. Yet if people took the time to read the fine print, the NRA and Trump had announced they were open to the regulation of bump stocks but weren’t pushing for legislative fixes. The gun lobby knew full well that lawyers at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have maintained for several years that they cannot regulate bump stocks unless the law changes.
If ATF felt it had the unilateral authority to ban these devices, Barack Obama obviously would have done so. Groups like the NRA are incredibly strategic, so they surely understand that manufacturers will be able to cite the previous interpretations of the government’s limited statutory authority to gum up any new regulations in the courts, perhaps for years, and possibly even invalidate them. Publicly and privately, Justice Department officials have said the same. That is why Democrats have insisted all along that Congress must act.
But Trump insists that the executive branch has the power it needs. A public comment period to weigh in on possible bump stock regulations closed on Jan. 25. More than 100,000 people weighed in. The memo the president signed Tuesday afternoon, nearly a month after that comment period ended, directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions “to dedicate all available resources to complete the review of the comments received, and, as expeditiously as possible, to propose for notice and comment a rule banning all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns.”
So there are still several hurdles to clear. Manufacturers, meanwhile, continue to flood the market with these deadly devices, capitalizing on the fear that such a ban is imminent:
Bump stock manufacturer Slide Fire was running a President's Day promotion over the weekend.— Igor Bobic (@igorbobic) February 20, 2018
"Coupon code: MAGA" pic.twitter.com/2HmXg0mxO1
-- But while dragging his feet on bump stocks, Trump has quietly taken other steps over the past 13 months to weaken the background check system he now claims he wants to strengthen and to undercut enforcement of existing gun laws.
“His appointees have quietly chipped away at the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the federal system that stores consult to make sure buyers are eligible to purchase guns,” Christi Parsons notes in today’s Los Angeles Times. “The administration … narrowed a few legal definitions to make it harder to classify would-be gun buyers as ineligible. The FBI used to consider people ‘fugitives from justice’ if there were outstanding warrants for their arrest, but now they must also have fled across state lines to intentionally avoid prosecution to be disqualified. Trump officials also purged tens of thousands of law enforcement records from the background system. … They narrowed the definition of mentally ill. … And Trump rolled back an Obama-era regulation that required the Social Security Administration to send records of people receiving benefits for mental illness for inclusion in the background check system.”
-- Trump’s budget proposal, released just one day before the Valentine’s Day massacre, called for scaling back funding to support the background check system. “Proposed federal spending for the grants that help states improve the completeness of the records they report to the federal database would be reduced from $73 million to $61 million — a $12 million decrease,” ABC’s Jordyn Phelps reports.
-- Trump and congressional Republicans are feeling a lot more heat than they were a week ago.
“To do nothing has become untenable,” writes GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers, an alumnus of the Ronald Reagan White House. “The Democrats on the left and the media will howl that whatever Republicans do won’t be enough. But this isn’t about satisfying them. It is about acknowledging the problem everyone else sees and using the power that voters have given Republicans to do something about it. Americans are sending their kids off to school wondering whether they will come home. Republicans cannot choose to do nothing in the face of that reality.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who worked on the failed bipartisan effort in 2013 after Newtown to expand background checks, said he will reintroduce legislation in the coming weeks that would improve the system. “It does feel like we have a shot at getting a little bit of momentum on background checks,” Toomey told Bob Costa. “We’re going to take a swing at that and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do it.”
-- No politician has faced as much backlash over the past week as Marco Rubio. Sean Sullivan notes that the Florida senator used the 2016 shooting at an Orlando nightclub as a key rationale for deciding to run again after announcing his retirement. Back then, he said the incident “deeply impacted” him.
“But since then, Rubio has largely adhered to orthodox GOP positions on guns, resisting several efforts to tighten laws,” Sean writes. “In the hours after [last week’s] shooting, Rubio stood on the Senate floor and said that most of the tougher gun restrictions that others have proposed wouldn’t have prevented it. In response to the shooting, Rubio has advocated a variety of remedies, and has sent cautious and sometimes confusing signals about where he stands. He has embraced the idea of a gun violence restraining-order law while also sounding open to expanding background checks, creating a task force to examine the causes of mass shootings and banning ‘bump stock’ devices … According to federal campaign finance records, the NRA has spent more than $3 million on Rubio’s behalf … He has also received an A-plus rating from the organization.”
MORE FLORIDA FALLOUT:
-- The U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not review California’s 10-day waiting period for gun sales, giving states wide leeway to make their own gun laws. Clarence Thomas was the sole justice to dissent, writing that his colleagues were turning the Second Amendment into a “disfavored right.” (Robert Barnes)
-- The Florida state House declined to take up an assault weapons ban as student survivors of the shooting looked on from the gallery. The motion went down on a 36-71 vote. (AP)
-- An aide to Florida state Rep. Shawn Harrison (R) was fired for telling a reporter that two of the students who have been speaking out about gun violence were actors, a claim which has been promoted aggressively by online conspiracy theorists. (The Tampa Bay Times)
-- Wisconsin Democrats attempting to pass universal background checks for gun buyers were thwarted when their GOP colleagues in the state legislature rewrote the legislation to instead fund armed guards in schools. (AP)
-- The Army recognized the heroism of the three JROTC members who died in the shooting. Peter Wang, Martin Duque and Alaina Petty were awarded the Army’s Medal of Heroism, and Wang was posthumously admitted to West Point, his dream school. He would have been the Class of 2025. (Sun-Sentinel)
-- Bloomberg News notes that the state pension plan for Florida teachers is invested in the company that produced the rifle used in the shooting: “[The fund] held 41,129 shares in American Outdoor Brands Co. valued at more than a half-million dollars … Formerly known as Smith & Wesson … [the firm] manufactured the semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle that was used in the [attack]. The securities filing, posted on the pension plan’s web site, shows that the Florida Retirement System Pension Plan also invested in gun company stock issued by Sturm & Ruger Co., Vista Outdoor Inc. and Olin Corp.”
-- Jessica Contrera looks at how the student survivors are processing their trauma: “She was tired of catching herself staring blankly at the wall, so Hannah Karcinell sent a group text to her friends: ‘Hi, I’m thinking of having a thing at my house.’ … The first to arrive was her friend Kate Keane, still in the black dress she wore to 15-year-old Luke Hoyer’s visitation. She apologized for coming early. ‘I would rather not be alone,’ she said. In walked Jose Iglesias[.] … The first night after the attack, the shooter lurked in his dreams. Afraid that might happen again, he had slept a total of 10 hours in the four days since. … Here came Dimitri Hoth, who had slept okay, but only because he had asked his mother, for the first time since he was a toddler, if he could sleep in her bed.”
-- The anti-Trump group Resist 45 graffitied a billboard in Louisville with the words “Kill the NRA.” The owners of the billboard said the vandalism was “immediately removed,” but the NRA seized on the image and circulated it on social media. “To all American gun owners, this is a wake-up call. They’re coming after us. Like and share to spread the word,” NRA officials wrote in their own Facebook post, marking one of its first public comments since the massacre. (Marwa Eltagouri)
-- George and Amal Clooney announced they will donate $500,000 to the March for Our Lives, the event organized by a group of student survivors to advocate for reduced gun violence. They were quickly joined by other celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw. (CNN)
-- Here’s a taste of the coverage across the country this morning:
- New York Times front page: “Outcry Growing, Trump Endorses 2 Gun Measures.”
- Albany Times Union: “On defensive over guns, Trump directs Sessions to ban bump stocks.”
- Politico: “AR-15 auction removed from fundraiser with [Cathy] McMorris Rodgers.”
- The Hill: “Lawmakers feel pressure on guns.”
- Minneapolis Star Tribune (running wire copy): “Trump says more must be done to protect children.”
- The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board: “There may be room to compromise. To wit, the House could quickly move a version of a bill it passed last year to improve background checks.”
- New York Daily News editorial: “Do more, Mr. President: Trump's proposed bump-stock ban is oddly timed and procedurally questionable.”
- McClatchy: “Some Florida Republicans begin push for stricter gun measures.”
- Gizmodo: “Trump Calls to Regulate Bump Stocks, Bump Stock Maker’s Website Crashes.”
- KHTV (Little Rock CBS affiliate): “Arkansas gun seller on bump stock ban: 'Bad people don't listen to our laws.’”
- Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Trump wants ban on bump stocks like those used in Las Vegas shooting.”
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:
-- Evangelist Billy Graham has died at 99. Over a career that stretched more than 70 years, “America’s Pastor” preached to 200 million people in 185 countries and counseled a dozen U.S. presidents. (NBC News)
-- Mike Pence was slated to hold a secret meeting with North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, during his trip to South Korea earlier this month. But Pyongyang abruptly withdrew from the Feb. 10 meeting less than two hours before it was to begin. Ashley Parker reports: “The North Korean decision … came after Pence used his trip to denounce the North’s nuclear ambitions and announce the ‘toughest and most aggressive’ sanctions yet against the regime, while also taking steps to further solidify the U.S. alliance with Japan and South Korea. The cancellation also came as Kim Jong Un, through his sister, invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang to begin talks ‘soon’ — a development that would be likely to cause consternation in Washington, where the Trump administration has been leading a campaign to put ‘maximum pressure’ on the Kim regime to give up its nuclear program.”
- Pence's office pointed to the canceled meeting as a sign that his mission to combat the North Koreans' propaganda efforts during the Olympics was a success. “North Korea dangled a meeting in hopes of the vice president softening his message, which would have ceded the world stage for their propaganda during the Olympics,” said Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers. “But as we’ve said from Day One about the trip: This administration will stand in the way of Kim’s desire to whitewash their murderous regime with nice photo ops at the Olympics.”
-- Kentucky Democrats won a state legislature race in a district Trump carried with 72 percent of the vote. Democrat Linda Belcher will replace a Republican who committed suicide in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against him. From David Weigel: “Belcher, a Democrat first elected in 2008, won the special election for Kentucky’s 49th District with 68.45 percent of the vote. In 2016, as Donald Trump won Kentucky by the biggest margin of any Republican presidential candidate in history, Belcher lost by just 156 votes to Republican pastor Dan Johnson. … But in December 2017, during a wave of #MeToo revelations across state capitols, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published a lengthy investigation of Johnson’s conduct at his church, revealing that he had sexually abused a 17-year-old girl. Days after the story was published, Johnson was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. …
“A special election followed, with Johnson’s widow, Rebecca, winning the Republican nomination to replace him. ‘I believe the voters of Bullitt County deserve to have the person that they put in office,’ Rebecca Johnson told the Courier Journal. ‘I’m the other half of that person.’ In the end, Belcher easily defeated Johnson, marking the 37th Democratic victory in a Republican-held state legislative seat since the start of 2017.”
-- Rebecca Johnson is blaming her defeat on voter fraud. The Louisville Courier Journal’s Thomas Novelly reports: “[Johnson] claims that numerous people were turned away as being ineligible to vote at their local polling place. ‘I've heard from people all day long saying they went to vote for me at the correct polling place and were refused the opportunity to vote,’ Johnson said in a statement. ‘It's like we are in a third world country.’”
-- American Lindsey Vonn captured bronze in Olympic women’s downhill skiing. The victory is the third Olympic medal of Vonn’s storied career. At 33, Vonn also became the oldest Olympic medalist in the event. Italy’s Sofia Goggia and Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel took the gold and silver medals, respectively. (Rick Maese)
-- Americans Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell finished ninth, 10th and 11th in the women's ice skating short program. The disappointing results nearly guarantee the U.S. team figure skaters won’t be able to get to the podium after Friday’s decisive free skate. (Liz Clarke)
-- The U.S. men’s hockey team lost to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. Adam Kilgore writes: “The 2018 United States Olympic men’s hockey team will be remembered as a squad with heart but little finishing skill, and so its tournament came Wednesday afternoon to a fitting close. It forced overtime despite being outplayed all game, and it survived overtime despite playing 10 minutes of four-on-four hockey in its second game in two days. Forced into a shootout, the Americans’ fatal flaw surfaced. All five shooters failed to convert, and despite four saves from goalie Ryan Zapolski, the Czech Republic eliminated the ragtag Americans in the quarterfinals, 3-2.”
-- The U.S. team now has 13 medals, putting them in a sixth-place tie with France in the medal count.
GET SMART FAST:
- The Louisville men’s basketball team was stripped of its 2013 national championship after failing to overturn the NCAA’s sanctions in a sex scandal that has embroiled other schools. Louisville is the first program in modern NCAA history to vacate a national championship. (Roman Stubbs and Jacob Bogage)
- D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson resigned following revelations that he skirted the District’s school lottery system to benefit his daughter. Wilson was only one year into his term and his exit brings more turnover in a school district already facing turmoil. (Perry Stein, Peter Jamison and Fenit Nirappil)
- A new study estimated that, for every five years strong action on climate change is delayed, the ocean could rise an additional eight inches by the year 2300. (Chris Mooney)
- Decades after recommending the death penalty for a convicted murderer, a Cincinnati juror has launched a campaign to halt his execution. Ross Geiger says he was “astounded” by the lack of material jurors received about the defendant, which he says would have caused him to reach a different verdict. “The state had a duty to give me access to the information I needed to make the best decision I could,” he said. “It’s like if you have to take a big test, but you were deprived of the textbook.” (Derek Hawkins)
- Lawyers for “Making a Murderer” subject Brendan Dassey have asked the Supreme Court to review his murder conviction. His defense team argues that authorities “improperly coerced” a confession from the then-16-year-old in the 2005 killing of photographer Teresa Halbach. (Robert Barnes)
- Chinese authorities are demanding “severe punishment” for a 24-year-old American man who allegedly stole the thumb of a 2,000-year-old terra-cotta warrior statue on display in Philadelphia. The theft was captured on video during an “after hours” event at the museum — which, according to an arrest affidavit, was actually an ugly-sweater party. (Meagan Flynn)
- A 24-year-old British woman says she and her boyfriend were removed from an Emirates flight to Dubai after she was overheard by a flight attendant complaining about period cramps. Emirates later described the woman’s ailment as a “medical emergency,” even though the woman says she rated her pain as a “1 out of 10.” The couple was forced to pay an additional $350 to reschedule the trip. (Lindsey Bever)
WEST WING INTRIGUE:
-- As Jared Kushner awaits permanent security clearance, he has resisted giving up his access to highly classified information — prompting an internal debate with John Kelly, who maintains he will begin revoking top-secret clearances for any White House staffer whose background investigation has been pending since before June 1. The New York Times’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman report: “[Mr. Kushner’s] clearance has afforded him access to closely guarded information, including the presidential daily brief … but it has not been made permanent, and his background investigation is still pending … Mr. Kushner, frustrated about the security clearance issue and concerned that Mr. Kelly has targeted him personally with the directive, has told colleagues at the White House that he is reluctant to give up his high-level access, the officials said. In the talks, the officials say, Mr. Kushner has insisted that he maintain his current level of access, including the ability to review the daily intelligence briefing when he sees fit. But Mr. Kelly, who has been privately dismissive of Mr. Kushner, … has made no guarantees, saying only that the president’s son-in-law will still have all the access he needs to do his job under the new system.”
“As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico,” Kelly said in a White House statement.
-- In the immediate days after Kelly issued his memo on clearances, Kushner was out of the country — on vacation, reports Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox. “According to two people familiar with their travel plans, [Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump] took a holiday in the sun, enjoying the long weekend in the Caribbean. … None of the couple’s friends in New York expect Kelly’s memo, or the impending showdown over Kushner’s security clearance, to send the couple packing. Despite the media circus surrounding the Mueller probe, they are, generally speaking, happier than they were in the chaotic early days of the Trump administration, in part because of personnel decisions and management systems Kelly put in place to professionalize the West Wing.”
-- Time’s Philip Elliott documents Trump’s “Twitter-Fueled Weekend Meltdown”: “In conversations with more than a dozen White House officials and outside advisers, they describe the mood as being grim. Many inside are looking for a way out. Roughly half of them compared it to what they felt when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last May. … The President is increasingly angered with his personal and political situations and blames those around him[.] … Trump’s always formidable temper has been shorter-fused than usual, his willingness to listen less than normal[.]”
-- Donald Trump Jr., who is in India promoting luxury Trump Tower projects, attracted criticism for complimenting the country’s poorer citizens on their smiles. Annie Gowen reports: “‘I don't want to be glib but you can see the poorest of the poor and there is still a smile on a face,’ Trump said Tuesday in an interview with CNBC’s Indian affiliate. For the interview, the Trump scion slicked back his hair and donned a dark suit and light blue silk tie. ‘It is a different spirit than that which you see in other parts of the world, and I think there is something unique about that.’ Trump added, ‘I know some of the most successful businessmen in the world, and some of them are the most miserable people in the world.’”
THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:
-- The son-in-law of a Russian oligarch pleaded guilty to making false statements to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team regarding his communications with Rick Gates, as well as Gates’s work on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Spencer S. Hsu and Rosalind S. Helderman report: “Alex Van der Zwaan was charged with one count of making false statements, a felony, about his work as an attorney employed by a law firm engaged in 2012 by the Ukraine Ministry of Justice to prepare a report on the trial of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. … In a two-page information document, prosecutors alleged that Van der Zwaan falsely told the FBI and Mueller’s office that his last communication with Gates was in mid-August 2016 in an innocuous text message and his last communication with another, unnamed person was in 2014 when Van der Zwaan discussed that person’s family.”
“Van der Zwaan also allegedly falsely said he did not know why a September 2016 email between him and the other person, identified in court documents only as ‘person A’ was not produced to prosecutors. Prosecutors alleged Van der Zwaan spoke with Gates and Person A regarding the report on Tymoshenko and recorded the calls. Van der Zwaan also allegedly ‘deleted and otherwise did not produce emails’ sought by prosecutors and an unnamed law firm.” (Read the indictment here.)
-- The indictment comes just one day after reports that Gates will testify against Paul Manafort as part of a plea deal with Mueller. “It’s not a stretch to think that evidence provided by van der Zwaan … helped Mueller build a case strong enough that Gates had no choice but to flip,” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp writes. “Gates, as Manafort’s longtime assistant, might well have the goods on his former boss, who is one of the most pivotal players in the whole Trump-Russia scandal. It’s conceivable that van der Zwaan might end up being the first domino in a chain of events that leads to a major breakthrough — a Manafort conviction or plea deal. What this shows, more than anything else, is how methodical and wide-ranging the Mueller investigation is — that it’s willing to look all the way back to an obscure report from the winter of 2012 in order to get to the truth about the Trump-Russia scandal.”
-- Trump’s insistence that he has been “much tougher on Russia than Obama” builds on the president’s consistent pattern of declaring himself superior to his predecessor, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker write. “In private and in public, while devising policies and while crafting messages, Trump frequently draws flattering comparisons with his predecessor — and he does not let the truth intrude[.] … On Russia and a host of other issues, aides and advisers say, Trump’s near-compulsion with measuring himself against Obama reflects an innate need to be judged superior to his peers and to have a singular opponent to target. … His insistence on [the Russia] score Tuesday was echoed a few hours later by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who told reporters, ‘He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined.’ ...
“On the policy front, Trump has made undoing Obama-era achievements something of a North Star. His aides often couch legislative and regulatory ideas in terms of Obama, recognizing the president’s eagerness to undo his predecessor’s legacy. … ‘It does seem to be the organizing principle of his presidency,’ [former Obama White House adviser Tommy] Vietor said. ‘Did Obama oppose this? Yes. Then I support it. Or the reverse.’”
-- Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the convening of a cybersecurity task force, which will probe efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. Matt Zapotosky reports: “In ordering the task force, Sessions did not mention [Mueller’s indictment against Russian trolls], but said that exploring digital efforts to interfere with elections would be a priority. A Justice Department official said the task force had been planned before the indictment was announced.”
-- Wired’s Garrett M. Graff has a deep dive on Yevgeny Prigozhin, the hot-dog stand owner turned-Kremlin oligarch who helped spearhead the Russian election meddling efforts: “A closer read of [Mueller's indictment of individuals tied to the Internet Research Agency], though, tells an even more interesting story — a story of how a restaurateur whom [Putin] made wealthy repaid the favor by unleashing an army of trolls to promote #MAGA, bash Trump opponents, organize political rallies, suppress the votes of Clinton supporters, and hire Americans to dress up like Clinton in prison. … After all, one of the unwritten rules of Putin’s Russia is that those who see wealth showered upon them by the state owe a debt to aid Putin politically. For Prigozhin, that meant funding the [IRA].”
- As one IRA specialist explained: “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.” “The Americans are very impressionable people, and they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin said Friday after Mueller announced his indictments. “I respect them very much.”
-- In Real Life: Social media companies have struggled to shut down impostor accounts. The New York Times’s Nicholas Confessore and Gabriel J.X. Dance report: “Facebook and Twitter require proof of identity to shut down an impostor account but none to set one up. And even as social media accounts evolve into something akin to virtual passports — for shopping, political activity and even gaining access to government services — technology companies have devised their own rules and standards, with little oversight or regulation from Washington.”
-- “How Twitter Loses the Internet War,” by Vanity Fair's Maya Kosoff: Del Harvey is in charge of stopping the abuse and is something of a “legend inside Twitter, where she now serves as vice president of trust and safety.” But the flood of hate, neo-Nazis, Russian trolls and other problems has “seemed to overwhelm the problem ... as Twitter has grown from a small messaging platform with no revenue to a $25 billion public company, many company insiders have come to a frustrating conclusion: it’s a war that Harvey is losing ... Part of the problem, insiders agree, is that Twitter has never set clear guidelines for what kind of language or behavior will get somebody banned.”
NEW WORLD ORDER:
-- Syrian warplanes continued to pummel Eastern Ghouta with a relentless stream of airstrikes and barrel bombs, killing at least 200 people in a 48-hour period as part of a government-led push to recapture rebel-held territory. Meanwhile, aid agencies have issued dire humanitarian warnings — noting the rapid escalation in violence has left nearly 400,000 innocent civilians trapped in the besieged region. (Liz Sly and Louisa Loveluck)
Haunting reports from the ground:
- Gravediggers in Eastern Ghouta said they typically have 20 to 50 graves “on standby” at any given time — but this week, it has not been enough. “We are overwhelmed. We are throwing body parts in mass graves. It’s all we can do,” one man told Olivier Laurent and Louisa.
- “I cannot handle the idea of going down to the basement because I cannot imagine what it would mean to be bombed and die under the rubble,” one Syrian relief worker told our colleagues.
- “Lost and wounded children [cried] for their parents, others sat silently, rivulets of blood running down their faces whitened by dust from the strikes, as they received treatment,” AFP’s Hasan Mohamed reports. “One man's heart was still beating but he had already been moved to the morgue, his head wounds so bad that his case was deemed hopeless. …”
- “The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, issued a statement that consisted of a blank page[:] ‘We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage,’ the agency added in a footnote, by way of explanation.” (Adam Taylor)
-- “Residents and emergency medical workers ... posted a cascade of heart-rending images: a family with five children pulled dead from the rubble; families huddled in basements and dugout shelters; an ambulance crew loading a patient, then fleeing moments before an explosion hits,” the New York Times’s Anne Barnard and Carlotta Gall report. “Syrian officials vowed to show no quarter as they moved to wipe out rebels … [and] residents described the events as more like an all-out attack on civilians and infrastructure to force a surrender, a tactic used in previous battles across Syria.” “We are still alive, we can’t walk outside the house, even a few meters,” one resident said.
-- “We are standing before the massacre of the 21st century,” a doctor in Eastern Ghouta told The Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen. “If the massacre of the 1990s was Srebrenica, and the massacres of the 1980s were Halabja and Sabra and Shatila, then eastern Ghouta is the massacre of this century right now.”
From The Post's Middle East correspondent:
A photograph from an East Ghouta hospital after one of the bloodiest days of the war there. The smallest shrouds contain children. pic.twitter.com/aXPxuGpQFa— Louisa Loveluck (@leloveluck) February 20, 2018
From a reporter for The Guardian:
A doc in E Ghouta: "A child was brought to me, blue, his mouth was filled with sand. A 1 year old child, rescued from the rubble, breathing with lungs of sand. This wasn't in any of our medical textbooks. Is this a war? It’s not a war. It’s called a massacre."— Kareem Shaheen (@kshaheen) February 20, 2018
-- White House officials have told VA Secretary David Shulkin that his job is safe, indicating to him that Trump has decided to “stomach” the story about Shulkin’s 10-day, taxpayer-funded trip to Europe. Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Lisa Rein and Josh Dawsey report: “The president’s decision was communicated to Shulkin by [John Kelly] ... Trump ‘personally likes Shulkin,’ the official said, cautioning, however, that ‘if other stuff comes out, this could change, but for now, he’s safe.’ [Sarah Huckabee Sanders] said Tuesday that she has ‘no reason to believe’ Trump had lost confidence in Shulkin.”
-- Shulkin also said he has received the White House’s approval to purge the agency of conservatives who oppose his leadership. Politico’s Arthur Allen reports: “The embattled Cabinet head said he’d begun investigating what he called ‘subversion’ at the agency, and those who have defied his authority ‘won’t be working in my operation.’ Shulkin’s new chief of staff, Peter O’Rourke, is meeting with each staffer suspected of defying Shulkin ‘individually and as a group to determine, now that there is a clear direction where we are going, where people are going to stand,’ he said. ‘Those who crossed the line in the past are going to have to be accountable for those decisions.’”
-- A top HHS official was placed on administrative leave for promoting unfounded claims and conspiracy theories on social media. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott report: “Jon Cordova serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary for administration at HHS. Prior to joining HHS, Cordova served as a Trump delegate from California to the Republican National Convention and worked in communications for [Trump's] campaign in California. In July 2016, Cordova shared a story that asserted without evidence that [Gold Star father Khizr Khan], who spoke out against Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, was a ‘Muslim Brotherhood agent’ and ‘a Muslim plant working with the Hillary Clinton campaign.’ He also shared another story that falsely claimed the Clinton Foundation paid Khan. Cordova also shared unfounded and false stories that claimed [Sen. Ted] Cruz, a Texas Republican frequented prostitutes, was involved in a sex scandal and was hiding various public records related to his birth and education.”
-- Twenty-five Republican senators sent Trump a letter asking him to “re-engage with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” From Heather Long: “It's the latest attempt by Republican lawmakers to get Trump to take a softer stance on trade, even though his administration is gearing up to erect more trade barriers … The GOP letter was sent on the same day that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross released a report recommending that the president heavily restrict steel and aluminum imports with a large tariff or quota.”
-- Trump appears to have surprised his generals with a July tweet banning transgender individuals from serving in the military. BuzzfeedBuzzFeedDominic Holden reports: “The two emails … suggest widespread surprise among the chiefs, while raising further questions about Trump’s claim that he announced the position after consulting with military brass. ‘Chiefs,’ the first email from [ begins] … ‘I know yesterday’s announcement was unexpected.’ At the bottom of the email, [Joint Chiefs of Staff head Joseph] Dunford provided the chiefs a draft of a memo that said Trump’s tweets had not changed any policy as of yet. Speaking to that memo … Dunford gave the Joint Chiefs of Staff a heads up so they could blast the statement out to a large audience … ‘I’d ask that you ensure widest dissemination,’ [he wrote]."
-- HHS appeared to reverse instructions to a legal services program for immigrant minors that its lawyers not discuss abortion rights with their clients. Ann E. Marimow reports: “[The nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice] told its lawyers in an email that the legal services program, funded through a multimillion-dollar contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement ... was at risk if its attorneys answered questions about abortion rights. … HHS said in a statement that it had ‘not issued a new directive on the matter of abortion.’ … On Friday, Vera officials said in an updated statement that ORR had ‘approved Vera’s rescinding the instructions to its subcontractors.’”
THE ROAD TO NOVEMBER:
-- Mitt Romney is walking a complicated path as he launches his Senate bid — but his challenges may become even more daunting if he wins. Dan Balz reports: “As with other Republican candidates who have differed with Trump, [Romney] could be pressed and perhaps hectored by the president’s loyalists in the state, though Utah was hardly a hotbed of Trump support in 2016. He also could be pushed by others to make his differences with the president more explicit. Once in the Senate, he would find himself trailed by reporters, recorders and cameras thrust in his face, asking for responses to any and all controversial comments by the president. … For those who hope Romney runs primarily out of pique toward the president, there will be disappointment … But there will be disillusionment among those who admire him if he shrinks from truly standing up as needed to the president.”
-- The latest campaign finance filings show some wealthy individual donors have already given eight figures each to parties and major super PACs. Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy report: “Shipping magnate Richard Uihlein is among the leading individual donors in the cycle thus far, giving at least $17 million to the Republican National Committee and super PACs supporting Republican candidates[.] … Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer poured $15.7 million to Democratic Party committees and to the super PAC arm of his nonprofit NextGen Climate Action[.]" The filings also reveal the RNC has spent nearly $400,000 at properties owned by the Trumps since Election Day 2016.
-- Republican Corey Stewart, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in November, slammed GOP members of the state legislature as “flaccid, soft and weak” after they expressed openness to Medicaid expansion. “House Republicans are flimsier than toilet paper, except toilet paper actually has use,” Stewart said in a statement. “They’re so pathetic. It is time to get rough and remove these weak Republicans from office.” (Jenna Portnoy)
THE #METOO MOVEMENT:
-- An Agriculture Department staffer was placed on administrative leave after taking the stage during an agency event honoring Black History Month to recount how she was sexually harassed on the job. From Joe Davidson: Rosetta Davis “described how a supervisor, whom she named, offered to give her a promotion to grade GS-13 in exchange for sex. The supervisor and others are named in a lawsuit she filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. … Davis acknowledged she submitted to the supervisor’s advances in hopes of getting promoted. ‘I agreed to the sex,’ she said in an interview. Shortly after the program, she received a letter placing her on paid administrative leave.”
-- An internal NPR investigation concluded the news organization failed to take disciplinary action against its former head of news despite repeated complaints of inappropriate behavior. Paul Farhi reports: “The eight-week investigation by a law firm hired by NPR found that the public broadcaster’s executives tried to ‘counsel’ Senior Vice President Michael Oreskes after each of the incidents. Among other things, it said Oreskes continued to send inappropriate emails to young women and used his expense account to entertain them with dinners and drinks after being warned to stop. NPR didn’t act to remove Oreskes, however, until the complaints spilled into public view via a Washington Post story in late October.”
-- A Stanford law professor says is receiving death threats after leading a campaign to recall the judge in Brock Turner’s sexual assault case. Last week, Michele Dauber said one of those threatening letters was accompanied by white powder — prompting partial campus evacuations and an FBI investigation. “It's been upsetting and scary,” she told Meagan Flynn.
-- Talk-show host Tavis Smiley is suing PBS for firing him over sexual harassment allegations. Paul reports: “Smiley has been outspoken in his denials of PBS’s accusations. And so far, he appears to be the first of the many prominent media figures accused of sexual misconduct to take his counterclaim to court. … In a statement, Jennifer Rankin Byrne, PBS’s vice president for corporate communications, called the lawsuit ‘meritless’ and an attempt by Smiley ‘to distract the public from his pattern of sexual misconduct in the workplace.’”
-- Post reporters Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard and Alice Crites were among the winners of the prestigious George Polk Awards in Journalism for their work in uncovering sexual assault accusations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. (Caitlin Gibson)
SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:
In a tweet yesterday, Trump encouraged Pennsylvania Republicans to return to their original congressional map, which the state's Supreme Court determined “clearly, plainly, and palpably” violated Pennsylvania’s Constitution:
Hope Republicans in the Great State of Pennsylvania challenge the new “pushed” Congressional Map, all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Your Original was correct! Don’t let the Dems take elections away from you so that they can raise taxes & waste money!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2018
He also went after one of the women who accused him of sexual misconduct, Rachel Crooks, who is running for the Ohio House and was featured on The Post's front page yesterday:
A woman I don’t know and, to the best of my knowledge, never met, is on the FRONT PAGE of the Fake News Washington Post saying I kissed her (for two minutes yet) in the lobby of Trump Tower 12 years ago. Never happened! Who would do this in a public space with live security......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2018
....cameras running. Another False Accusation. Why doesn’t @washingtonpost report the story of the women taking money to make up stories about me? One had her home mortgage paid off. Only @FoxNews so reported...doesn’t fit the Mainstream Media narrative.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2018
Crooks seconded Trump's suggestion:
Please, by all means, share the footage from the hallway outside the 24th floor residential elevator bank on the morning of January 11, 2006. Let’s clear this up for everyone. It’s liars like you in politics that have prompted me to run for office myself. https://t.co/ir7EEKoXRU https://t.co/GmkkZ5jUc7— Rachel Crooks for Ohio (@RachelforOhio) February 20, 2018
And the president blasted "fake news" once again:
Bad ratings @CNN & @MSNBC got scammed when they covered the anti-Trump Russia rally wall-to-wall. They probably knew it was Fake News but, because it was a rally against me, they pushed it hard anyway. Two really dishonest newscasters, but the public is wise!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2018
An MSNBC anchor:
Dear @realDonaldTrump, tx for always caring. When I was a kid, I never dreamed I’d grow up to one day have the President of the United States so interested in any sort of work I did. Intelligence briefings might not be a priority,but cable tv ratings reports are #humbled #honored https://t.co/nMCeTqWANu— Stephanie Ruhle (@SRuhle) February 21, 2018
A Florida GOP senator shut down a conspiracy theory about student survivors of the Parkland shooting:
Claiming some of the students on tv after #Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 20, 2018
A Republican strategist:
Questioning the motivations of Parkland students/bizarre conspiracy theories should be beyond the pale. I may disagree with some of their policy goals, but the motivation of these incredibly well-spoken, poised kids is clear: their friends were shot.— Doug Heye (@DougHeye) February 20, 2018
Chelsea Clinton slammed the founder of a far-right website for spreading a separate conspiracy theory about a shooting survivor:
A former Fox News anchor questioned networks' decision to feature interviews with the students:
The big question is: should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?— Bill O'Reilly (@BillOReilly) February 20, 2018
A former senior adviser to Obama replied to O'Reilly:
That seems better than giving an hour of cable TV to an irrational accused sexual harasser with a history of pathological dishonesty https://t.co/5g2PCQff8o— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) February 20, 2018
The Post's satirical writer also chimed in:
it’s hard to think of a more callous take than We Cannot Take These Victims Seriously; They Are Much Too Young— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) February 20, 2018
An NPR reporter:
A thought on 17 yo's: It strikes me how unique their generation is: Born & raised in the 9/11 era, into a nation at war their entire lives, and already witnessed 19 of 33 deadliest shootings in America since WWII. Must shape/be shaping worldviews in ways we don't fully grasp yet.— Susan Davis (@DaviSusan) February 20, 2018
A BuzzFeed News reporter added this context to the Florida legislature's decision to not take up an assault weapons ban:
this literally happened on the same day in florida: lawmakers declared pornography is dangerous but not assault weapons pic.twitter.com/slFenXt7Vu— David Mack (@davidmackau) February 20, 2018
MLB plans to show its support for the shooting's victims during spring training:
.@MLB: All 30 Major League teams will wear Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School baseball caps before their Spring Training games this weekend to show support for the Parkland, Fla., community and the Stoneman Douglas student body after the tragic shooting at the school on Feb. 14— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 21, 2018
A Politico reporter captured this shot of the latest recipient of a Mueller indictment:
LATEST: Van Der Zwaan appears to have left FBI field office, where agents let him exit via loading dock in back. Avoiding cameras. Well, all but one...https://t.co/Rsh1yYbfJ2 pic.twitter.com/K0mmgOM3dw— Josh Gerstein (@joshgerstein) February 20, 2018
CNN's chyrons about the Russia news caught the attention of a writer for The Atlantic:
Tennis legend Serena Williams had a request for the Olympic figure skaters:
I'm loving the ice skating. These women are amazing. Am I being selfish by wanting someone to skate to "let it go"? From frozen?— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) February 21, 2018
And NBC responded accordingly:
The cold never bothered us anyway. pic.twitter.com/a4D4XnFTos— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 21, 2018
GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:
-- Newsweek, “Why is the Manhattan DA Looking at Newsweek’s Ties to a Christian University?” by Celeste Katz, Josh Keefe and Josh Saul: “In the summer of 2016, Olivet University, a small, California-based Bible college, was preparing to build a satellite campus in Dover, a town in upstate New York. As the school’s development arm sought tax breaks and construction permits from the town, it made a surprising offer to county officials: Would they like free advertising in Newsweek? … The previously unreported arrangement provides a window into the relationship between Olivet and Newsweek Media Group, the financial ties of which the Manhattan district attorney’s office is now scrutinizing as part of a long-running fraud probe[.]” (Check out the editors’ note for the piece, which recounts how Newsweek employees were forced out for reporting on the probe.)
-- BuzzFeed News, “Missouri Fought For Years To Hide Where It Got Its Execution Drugs. Now We Know What They Were Hiding,” by Chris McDaniel: “The state of Missouri has engaged in a wide-ranging scheme — involving code names and envelopes stuffed with cash — to hide the fact that it paid a troubled pharmacy for the drugs it used to execute inmates.”
-- New York Magazine, “The Poison We Pick,” by Andrew Sullivan: “This nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.”
HOT ON THE LEFT:
“Man featured on 'Trump Dating' site has child sex conviction,” from the AP: “A North Carolina man with a felony conviction for indecent liberties with a child was one-half of the poster couple for a new ‘Trump Dating’ website. News outlets reported Monday that visitors to the dating site geared toward supporters of the president were greeted with the faces of Jodi and William Barrett Riddleberger, conservative activists involved in the Tea Party-inspired political action committee, Conservatives for Guilford County. The couple's exact role with the site is unclear. State records show Riddleberger was convicted in 1995 on the charge stemming from filming sex with a 15-year-old girl. He was then 25. He told WRAL-TV that he's ‘already paid (his) debt’ for that charge. Records show he didn't serve prison time. As of Tuesday morning, the site trump.dating now features a different couple.”
HOT ON THE RIGHT
“Rep. Matt Gaetz wants you to know who he is, and his plan is working,” from Dan Zak: “Matt Gaetz [R-Fla.] is 13 months and 11 days into his first term. He’s still on Step 1 of Operation: Disrupt Congress. ‘Well, the first thing is people gotta know who you are,’ he says. ‘If you are anonymous, you are a less capable disrupter. So, Step 1: Get known.’ What’s Step 2? ‘I’ll let you know when I’m done with Step 1.’ … Everyone wants to know what his deal is, but in a superficial way, a way that feeds a news cycle. Why did he give a ticket for the State of the Union to an alt-right Internet troll? Why did a staff member crowdsource legislation from the anti-Clinton sewers on Reddit? Why did Gaetz sit for a long interview on Infowars with Alex Jones, the clownish conspiracy theorist? … Sometimes the president calls after he appears on TV, he says, and here lies the answer to any question about his motives. You’re a rookie but you’re hitting like Mickey Mantle, Trump says, according to Gaetz.”
Trump will have two morning meetings with the Council of Economic Advisers and Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon. He will also sit down with trade union leaders and later host a listening session with Parkland students and teachers.
Pence is at the Kennedy Space Center this morning for the second meeting of the National Space Council and a tour of the site. He will return to D.C. for the listening session with Parkland students and teachers.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the peace process: “[U.S. negotiators] are ready to talk, but we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours.” (Read Anne Gearan’s full report on the tense exchange between Haley and Abbas.)
NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:
-- The temperature in D.C. today could reach 80 degrees, breaking local records. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “We rise through the 60s during the morning hours, already well above our average daytime highs in the mid-to-upper 40s. Partly sunny skies, and a mild breeze around 10 mph from the southwest, help afternoon highs soar to the upper 70s to near 80.”
-- The Capitals lost to the Lightning 4-2. (Isabelle Khurshudyan)
-- Authorities discovered an AR-15 at the home of Alwin Chen, a high school student in Montgomery County who police say brought a loaded handgun to school last week. (Dan Morse)
-- The National Portrait Gallery’s paintings of the Obamas are attracting huge crowds. More than 72,000 visitors came to the museum during the first week the portraits were on display. (Peggy McGlone)
VIDEOS OF THE DAY:
Trevor Noah said he refused to get used to mass shootings and mocked Fox News's coverage of Parkland:
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) expressed frustration with congressional inaction on gun control during an interview with Stephen Colbert:
The pro-Obamacare group Save My Care launched a six-figure ad buy hammering Republicans for their repeal efforts:
An NBC correspondent tweeted this video for the anniversary of Pat Buchanan's New Hampshire primary victory:
Tonight in 1996, Pat Buchanan won the NH primary on a platform we would later call Trump-ism. Watch this clip on the terrified GOP establishment's reaction back then: pic.twitter.com/Ah8MTNgNWZ— Steve Kornacki (@SteveKornacki) February 20, 2018
The Parkland shooting sparked the #OneLess social media campaign, in which gun owners shared photos and videos of their destroyed firearms:
A man in Chicago was arrested after lighting a train car on fire using paint thinner: