With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.

THE BIG IDEA: If you don’t like President Trump’s position on a particular issue, just wait a day. It may change.

It’s always suspicious when a federal agency quietly makes a major policy change and does not put out a news release about it. That’s what the Interior Department did last week.

Handing another win to the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a ban related to importing elephant trophies from Africa. A March 1 memorandum, written in dense legalese, said the government will now allow hunters to receive permits on “a case-by-case basis” to bring tusks and other body parts back to this country.

This is notable because Trump chastised and then overruled his own political appointees at the department, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, when they unveiled plans last November to lift restrictions put in place by Barack Obama. The president called the hunting of elephants for sport a “horror show.”

Just last month, Trump told Piers Morgan that what his team did last year was “terrible.”

“I didn’t want elephants killed and stuffed and have the tusks brought back,” he said.

Stories started trickling out this week as reporters discovered the memo that had been entered into the public record.

The NRA has been aggressively challenging the 2014 ban on elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia in court, and the D.C. Circuit ruled in December that the Obama administration didn’t follow proper procedures related to soliciting public comments when implementing it.

The Trump administration cites this finding as the justification for its policy change. But The Hill notes that Fish and Wildlife is simultaneously withdrawing other findings related to trophy hunting that stretch back to 1995. So that spin doesn’t necessarily pass the smell test.

The population of African elephants, the world’s largest land mammal, has declined from 5 million to 400,000 over the past century. That’s why they’ve been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1979. These are incredibly smart creatures and really amazing to behold up close.

In an apparent effort to minimize press coverage, the Trump team at Interior initially tried to push through the rule change last November during the week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

But they didn’t count on blowback from the right. Many conservative elites are against the senseless and barbaric murder of elephants, the symbol of the Republican Party, and they successfully used their platforms to get the president to overrule his subordinates and both of his sons. Most prominent among them were radio host Michael Savage and Fox News host Laura Ingraham. (I wrote a Big Idea about this at the time.)

Once again, these same thought leaders swung into action when the word got out about what Interior was doing:

Speaking for the first time about the Interior memo, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted at her Wednesday afternoon briefing that the president’s views have not changed since November. She cited the litigation as the reason for the change and then referred specific questions about how the relaxed rules will work to the department. “The president has been clear what his position is, and that has not changed,” she said. Asked if he thinks there should be a permanent ban on imports of trophies, she ducked and repeated herself. “President Trump's position on trophy hunting remains the same,” Sanders said.

When I followed up with Interior, spokeswoman Heather Swift replied with a one-sentence email: “Secretary Zinke is 100 percent in step with the president's position on the issue.”

“Zinke recently told people privately that Trump has called him several times to discuss what to do about elephant trophies,” the AP’s Michael Biesecker notes. “Zinke is an avid hunter who after arriving at Interior last year ordered the arcade game ‘Big Buck Hunter Pro’ to be installed in the employee cafeteria at the agency's Washington headquarters. … In June, the department removed longstanding protections for grizzly bears near Yellowstone National Park, a step to potentially allow them to be hunted. The Fish and Wildlife Service also quietly began issuing permits in October allowing African lions killed in Zimbabwe and Zambia to be imported.”

Bottom line: This is the latest illustration of the imperative with this administration to watch what officials actually do, not just what Trump says or tweets. The case-by-case standard means that officials could grant no permits or approve all requests. Officials at Fish and Wildlife say that applicants will need to meet conservation and sustainability requirements. (Advocates of big-game hunting argue that revenue from trophy permits helps preserve habitats, but many experts disagree.)

As always, the devil is in the details. The number of approved permits may not be known publicly for a while. It’s conceivable that Trump will do nothing as his political appointees clear the way for hunters to practice what he thinks is “a horror show,” especially if it means not running crosswise with the gun lobby. If Ingraham isn’t drawing his attention to the matter on her Fox show, which he watches, the inconsistency between his rhetoric and reality could be out of sight and out of mind.

Savage, a syndicated radio host and the author of several best-selling books, took credit last night for Trump appearing to once again overrule his political people at Interior. “I felt that someone had punched me in the gut when I saw that the ban … was secretly lifted,” he wrote on his blog. “I felt betrayed. I had spent a dinner talking to the president about environmental issues, and especially this, and this is what happened anyway. Well, they didn’t do it secretly enough, because I found out about it and I brought it to [my] audience. I made it clear that this was a red line that could not be crossed … I explained that the root of ‘conservative’ is the same as ‘conservation’ and the two do not need to be diametrically opposed.”

Savage said he sent Trump an article he wrote on this subject with the message, “Mr. President, you are just plain wrong.”

“People in the administration told me personally the president received this information,” he wrote. “I have a voice that was heard and was listened to. And it’s important because, who else will speak for these animals?”

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- The head of the U.S. Forest Service stepped down amid sexual misconduct accusations. The U.S. Agriculture Department, which includes the Forest Service, is conducting an investigation into Tony Tooke’s relationship with subordinates before he became chief of the agency, per ReutersA PBS NewsHour report last week highlighted widespread complaints from women in the Forest Service of sexual harassment.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. The Florida legislature passed new gun regulations, bucking the NRA in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. But the measures, which include raising the minimum age to buy long guns and creating a program to arm some school employees, don't go as far as the ban on assault-style weapons some Parkland survivors sought. (Michael Scherer)
  2. Nikolas Cruz was indicted on 34 counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder tied to the Parkland shooting. The 19-year-old could face the death penalty. (Mark Berman)
  3. More than 600 schools received “copycat threats” in the two weeks following the Parkland shooting. The number of threats spiked dramatically from about 10 to 70 a day — and left educators and authorities scrambling to respond. (USA Today
  4. Trump’s reelection campaign committee paid over $500,000 last year to rent office space for a skeleton crew of staffers in Trump Tower. The monthly rent was more than what Trump charged from June 2015 to March 2016, back when he was largely self-funding his campaign and there were several dozen employees in the midtown Manhattan office. (HuffPost’s S.V. Date)
  5. The U.S. Holocaust Museum has stripped Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi of its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award. The museum condemned the Nobel laureate for failing to address — or even publicly acknowledge — her country’s violent military campaign against the Rohingya minority. (Michelle Boorstein and Anne Gearan)
  6. The Army confirmed that bomb-sniffing war dogs tasked with saving the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan were “mistreated” when they came home. Some of the hero dogs were placed in kennels for periods of up to 11 months after completing their duty, officials said, while others may have euthanized. The Army said it has agreed to comply with an inspector general’s report calling for changes. (Reuters)
  7. Three defense attorneys for the alleged USS Cole bomber quit after they discovered a microphone in their client meeting room, according to a prosecution filing obtained by the Miami Herald. The lawyers say they were barred from investigating or talking about the recording device. The government insists the microphone was a legacy of past interrogations and never turned on.
  8. The NBA is reviewing a 2011 sexual assault allegation against Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. An Oregon weekly alternative newspaper reported that police didn't pursue an investigation after a woman accused Cuban of shoving his hand down her pants and touching her inappropriately as they posed for a photo. (USA Today)

  9. Local news anchors for Sinclair Broadcasting affiliates expressed discomfort with participating in the conservative company’s promotional campaign against “fake stories.” The messages echo Trump’s cries of “fake news.” (CNN)
  10. Nancy Pelosi donated her speaker’s gavel and the suit she wore when she was sworn-in to the Smithsonian. The museum requested the items for a collection of artifacts documenting women in U.S. history. (Emily Heil)

  11. A new scientific study argues that bones found in 1940 on the Pacific Island of Nikumaroro belonged to Amelia Earhart. An initial analysis of the bones in 1941 concluded they belonged to a man, but such science was then in its early stages and could have been flawed. (Marwa Eltagouri)
  12. A McDonald’s in Lynwood, Calif., flipped its golden arches upside down in honor of International Women’s Day today. The fast-food chain will also flip its logo on all its digital channels today. (Business Insider)

THERE'S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Robert Mueller has obtained evidence that a January 2017 Seychelles meeting attended by Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Putin-linked investor Kirill Dmitriev was an effort to establish back-channel communications between the incoming Trump administration and the Kremlin. That evidence contradicts earlier statements from Prince, who told congressional investigators he went to Seychelles as a “private businessman,” not an emissary of the Trump campaign.

“A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries,” Sari Horwitz and Devlin Barrett scoop. “Last year, Prince told lawmakers … that his Seychelles meeting with [Dmitriev] was an unplanned, unimportant encounter that came about by chance because he happened to be at a luxury hotel in the Indian Ocean island nation with officials from the [UAE]. The two men, he said, spoke for no more than 30 minutes … Investigators now suspect that the Seychelles meeting may have been one of the first efforts to establish such a line of communications between the two governments[.] Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition. However, according to people familiar with the [meeting], he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his discussion with the Russian official.”

UAE adviser George Nader — who helped organize and attended the Seychelles meeting — is cooperating with Mueller and testified on the matter before a grand jury. “Nader had also attended a December 2016 meeting in New York between senior Trump advisers and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi,” our colleagues report. “Nader’s account is considered key evidence — but not the only evidence — about what transpired in the Seychelles[.]”

After the Seychelles meeting, Nader visited the White House several times, and met on more than one occasion with Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.

-- “Let’s not forget … FBI agents working for [Mueller] pounced on George Nader and rapidly convinced him to become a cooperating witness,” writes TPM's Josh Marshall. “They also had warrants to confiscate his electronic equipment. Both facts suggest investigators already had major evidence of wrongdoing implicating Nader. What was the evidence and what was the wrongdoing? [Also], the meeting was [9 or 10 days] prior to Trump’s inauguration. This to me is the most tantalizing part of the whole story. … What precisely was this backchannel for that it couldn’t wait 10 days? The answer seems pretty straightforwardly that someone was either in an extreme rush or that the backchannel was to transact business that had to remain secret from the US government.”

-- Mueller’s team has learned of two recent conversations in which Trump asked key witnesses in the Russia investigation about matters they discussed with the special counsel. The New York Times’s Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report: “In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, [Don McGahn] should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire [Mueller]. Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed ... In the other episode, Mr. Trump asked his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, how his interview had gone with the special counsel’s investigators and whether they had been ‘nice’ … The episodes demonstrate that even as the special counsel investigation appears to be intensifying, the president has ignored his lawyers’ advice to avoid doing anything publicly or privately that could create the appearance of interfering with it.

“Legal experts said Mr. Trump’s contact with the men most likely did not rise to the level of witness tampering. But witnesses and lawyers who learned about the conversations viewed them as potentially a problem and shared them with Mr. Mueller. … The experts said the meetings with Mr. McGahn and Mr. Priebus would probably sharpen Mr. Mueller’s focus on the president’s interactions with other witnesses [and could] serve as evidence for Mr. Mueller in an obstruction case.”

-- Sam Nunberg said he has “fully complied” with Mueller’s subpoena and will appear before a federal grand jury tomorrow, marking a full 180 from the former campaign aide's defiant string of media interviews in which he dared the special prosecutor to “send him to jail.” “I’m not holding anything back,” Nunberg told WABC Radio on Wednesday. “[Complying with the subpoena] was much easier to do than I initially thought,” Nunberg said. He also denied accusations that he was intoxicated during a Monday night CNN interview, telling the radio hosts, “If I was able to do a 35-minute interview drunk, I think that would be pretty historic.”

-- One day before she resigned as White House communications director, Hope Hicks told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that one of her email accounts was “hacked.” NBC News’s Jonathan Allen, Mike Memoli and Ken Dilanian report: “Under relatively routine questioning from Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., about her correspondence, Hicks indicated that she could no longer access two accounts: one she used as a member of [Trump's] campaign team and the other a personal account, [because one had been hacked]. … It was unclear if Hicks was referring to the campaign or the personal account. Her assertion of a hack raises the questions of who might have compromised her account, as well as when, why and what information could have been obtained.”

-- Mitt Romney responded to reporting from the New Yorker that suggested the Russian government believes it played a role in blocking him from becoming secretary of state. “I don't know what the president's process was in determining his secretary of state, or why he chose to ask me to come in, or decided not to have me as his secretary of state. So, I really can't comment on the Steele dossier in that regard,” Romney said, according to the Deseret News. “I do believe it's pretty clear that I'm not a fan of Vladimir Putin's and I wouldn't be surprised if he's not a fan of mine either.”

-- A Wall Street Journal analysis showed Russian trolls targeted Romney with negative social media content as he was being considered for the Cabinet position. The Journal’s Rob Barry and Shelby Holliday report: “The operatives called the 2012 GOP presidential nominee … a ‘two headed snake’ and a ‘globalist puppet,’ promoted a rally outside Trump Tower and spread a petition to block Mr. Romney’s appointment to the top diplomatic job, according to a review of now-deleted social-media posts.”

-- British police said a former Russian spy and his 33-year-old daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent last weekend in Salisbury, England, further raising suspicions that Russia was behind the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. (New York Times)

-- The Kremlin has a long, terrifying history of poisoning its dissidents abroad and has worked for many years to develop colorless, odorless poisons. Russia’s parliament even legally sanctioned killings outside the country in 2006. “Some testing was done on living prisoners …” Amanda Erickson reports. “A Russian banker, Ivan K. Kivelidi, died of cadmium poisoning in 1995 [that had been spread] on his office telephone. In one famous case, from 1978, a Bulgarian dissident was killed after being stabbed with an umbrella tipped with ricin on Waterloo Bridge.” (A list of even more mysterious deaths can be found here.)

STORMY FALLOUT:

-- Asked if Trump knew that his personal lawyer Michael Cohen paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 during the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign to keep quiet about her alleged affair with him, Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave a non-answer: “Not that I’m aware of.” The White House press secretary sought to deflect repeated questions about Daniels during Wednesday’s press briefing. “Look, the president has addressed these directly and made very well clear that none of these allegations are true,” she said.

-- Frances Stead Sellers, Emma Brown and David A. Fahrenthold track the 12 years since Trump and Daniels allegedly first met in Lake Tahoe: “In Daniels’s description, this was an unremarkable hookup between two people in the outer orbits of Hollywood fame. Daniels was a star of adult movies. Trump’s reality show, ‘The Apprentice,’ was slumping. At this Lake Tahoe celebrity tournament, the organizers had given him only fifth billing, listing the real estate developer two spots below Ray Romano in their lineup of stars. Now, that casual night — and the connection it allegedly created between a future president and a porn star — has altered the course of Daniels’s life and threatens to alter the course of Trump’s presidency.”

-- Cohen obtained a secret restraining order against Daniels last week in an attempt to silence her. NBC News’s Sarah Fitzpatrick reports: “The new pressure on Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, comes a day after she filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles court alleging that a nondisclosure agreement she made to keep quiet about an ‘intimate’ relationship with Trump is invalid because he never signed it. Tuesday's lawsuit says that Trump attorney [Cohen] ... attempted to ‘intimidate’ Clifford and ‘shut her up’ by initiating what it calls a ‘bogus arbitration proceeding’ against her in Los Angeles on Feb. 27. … Reached for comment late Wednesday afternoon, Clifford's current attorney, Michael Avenatti, said Cohen, through his own attorney, Lawrence Rosen, has made further attempts to enforce the order and caution Clifford that she is subject to damages if she talks about Trump.” (It's always a bad sign when the lawyers get their own lawyers ...)

-- Most congressional Republicans sought to dodge the Daniels controversy while those who were willing to talk about it were careful not to criticize Trump. John Wagner, Ed O'Keefe and Mike DeBonis report: “Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) was [tight-lipped] when asked how Republicans would have reacted if [Obama] was accused of having had an affair with a porn star. ’I don’t know,’ Kennedy said … ‘This is no country for creepy old men.’ After starting to walk away, Kennedy quickly turned back to a reporter with an urgent clarification: His comments were not intended to reflect poorly on President Trump.

One exception: Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who survived his own sex scandal in 2009. “It’s nefarious, it’s awkward, it’s unpleasant, it’s unseemly,” the former governor said. “It’s not something people feel that comfortable talking about, but frankly it’s something we ought to talk about, because it is a big deal. People make mistakes, and they do things that they regret. That said, hush money is a big deal, particularly if it’s not ancient history. We’re talking about a payment in October of 2016. That is not a long time ago. We’re talking about money that was exchanged in the midst of a presidential campaign. I think that’s problematic, and I think it needs to be viewed for what it is. ... If the shoe were on the other foot and there was a Democratic presidential candidate who had done the same, Republicans would probably be holding hearings right now.”

-- The San Fernando Valley is to pornography what Silicon Valley is to technology. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who represents this area in Congress, said so much of Trump’s personal life has already spilled into view that the Daniels story doesn’t seem to be breaking through. “If this was any other political figure, they’d be writing their resignation speech now,” Sherman said. “But this is [Trump], and he is subject to a different set of rules.”

THE LATEST ON THE TARIFFS:

-- Administration officials said Wednesday night that Trump has changed his mind and now plans to offer Canada and Mexico a temporary exemption from new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The shift came after pleas for flexibility from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Top trade adviser Peter Navarro has insisted publicly that there would be no such exceptions, even for our closest allies.

But chaos continues to grip the White House. Some sources said last night that the president plans to formally enact the tariffs during a 3:30 p.m. ceremony in the Oval Office. Other said the timing of the announcement and details of what will be unveiled remain fluid.

Trump teased the 3:30 p.m. meeting on Twitter this morning:

One version of the plan … would give Canada and Mexico a 30-day exemption from the tariffs … The exemptions could be extended based on progress in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement,” David Lynch, Heather Long and Damian Paletta report. “Government lawyers have struggled in recent days to reconcile Trump’s public comments with the legal provisions they have been told to enforce. For example, Trump is trying to use the tariff threats to force Canada and Mexico to offer unrelated concessions in NAFTA. By publicly acknowledging this, he has potentially spoiled the legal standing of the tariffs, a senior administration official said, making it harder for them to design the prohibitions.

Steel industry leaders are split over whether to exclude Canada. The United Steelworkers Union, which has numerous members in Canada, is urging the administration to exclude Canada, arguing that America’s northern neighbor trades fairly. … But steel executives are more leery of an exemption for Canada, the largest source of imported steel.”

-- The European Union is prepared to retaliate by slapping tariffs on a wide range of American-made products, from yachts to peanut butter. Politico Europe reports: “The products targeted … are chosen so as not to harm EU industries, which do not need these imports. Some targets clearly gun for politically sensitive Republican-run states. The total value of the targets is €2.83 billion. … They will be discussed on Wednesday by commissioners from the 28 member countries, and will be rolled out if Trump goes ahead ...”

-- Blowback from congressional Republicans continues:

  • Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released a letter signed by 107 House Republicans that urges the president “to tailor” the tariffs to focus on China.
  • The Republican Study Committee, representing more than half of House Republicans, released a separate statement that describes tariffs as “a tax on American consumers and businesses.”
  • House Freedom Caucus leaders are bending over backwards to talk Trump out of the tariffs, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey report: “Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman ... and one of Trump’s most trusted allies in Congress, has spoken with the president multiple times during the past week and relayed the group’s staunch opposition to the president’s trade stances … Other Freedom Caucus members have also lobbied the White House, a senior administration official said.”

-- Charles Koch penned an op-ed for today's paper calling on lawmakers to oppose the tariffs: “One might assume that, as the head of Koch Industries — a large company involved in many industries, including steel — I would applaud such import tariffs because they would be to our immediate and financial benefit. But corporate leaders must reject this type of short-term thinking, and we have. If we are to have a system in which businesses can succeed long term, policies must benefit everyone, not just the few.”

-- Billionaire investor Carl Icahn, a Trump friend who has advised him on economic issues, denied having advance knowledge of the tariff plan before selling off steel-related stocks worth millions of dollars. “We don’t generally comment on rumors, but the recent media speculation regarding our sale of Manitowoc stock calls for a response,” Icahn said in a statement. “We state for the record: Any suggestion that we had prior knowledge of the Trump administration’s announcement of new tariffs on steel imports is categorically untrue.” (Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Marwa Eltagouri)

-- Trump has been more consistent in his rhetoric about trade than anything else over the past four decades. “Starting in the 1980s, [Trump] saw the trade issue as a way to build a national reputation as more than a playboy millionaire developer — and a way to connect with struggling American workers despite his life in a gilded Fifth Avenue tower,” writes Marc Fisher. “The issue spoke to him personally: Driven since childhood by his resentment that others didn’t respect him or take him seriously, he believed his country was similarly being taken advantage of. The idea that Japan, Germany, or in later years, China were boosting their own economies by selling goods in the United States … incensed Trump ... His country, he believed, was being laughed at and abused. Worst of all, America was losing.

“In the late 1980s, Trump was still building his reputation [and] believed his business would succeed if Americans came to see him as a winner who would never back down. 'I deal with the toughest, smartest people in the world,’ Trump told The Washington Post in 1987. ‘If they think Donald Trump can be walked on, if they think Donald Trump is a rollover, like most people are, the litigation will increase tenfold. It’s very important in life to establish yourself not to be a patsy, and if you don’t, you don’t end up sitting in this chair.'”

THE REST OF TRUMP'S AGENDA:

-- Jeff Sessions blasted California and other localities for passing “sanctuary city” policies that he said obstruct immigration enforcement and put local officers in danger. Allen Young, Matt Zapotosky and Ed O’Keefe report: “In an unusually strident speech that emphasized the supremacy of the federal government by referencing Abraham Lincoln and secession, Sessions said California’s actions ‘directly and adversely impact the work of our federal officers’ and ‘undermine the duly-established immigration law in America.’ He took particular aim at Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) for warning constituents last month about an impending raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — alleging her comments prevented authorities from making 800 arrests. And he said he planned to use the full might of the federal government to bring her state in line.” “California, absolutely, appears to me, is using every power it has — powers it doesn’t have — to frustrate federal law enforcement,” Sessions said. “So you can be sure I’m going to use every power I have to stop them.”

-- Jared Kushner’s visit to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto underscored how the Trump administration has shaken up foreign policy norms. The New York Times’s Azam Ahmed and Nicholas Casey write: “Officials announced the visit less than a day before it happened, offering no guidance on what would be discussed. Beyond that, Mr. Kushner, who also met with Mexico’s foreign minister, did not invite the American ambassador — Roberta S. Jacobson, a diplomat with more than 30 years of experience in the region — to join him in the meetings, according to a senior American official who was not authorized to speak publicly. ‘This is not the way foreign policy normally is, or should be, conducted,’ said Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University. ‘The sending of the president’s son-in-law — someone with no experience in Mexican-U.S. relations — is another example of the de-professionalization and personalization of diplomacy that will hurt U.S. interests and leverage in the region.’”

-- A Missouri town hosted a class called “Hispanics 101” in an attempt to lure Puerto Rican employees for jobs in local tourism. Danielle Paquette reports from Branson, Mo.: “As tourism season kicks off this month, the remote getaway known for dinner theaters, country music concerts and a museum of dinosaur replicas has 2,050 vacancies — and a lack of locals applying. So, like other areas with tight labor markets, Branson finds itself getting creative to fill jobs — in this case by recruiting people from a part of the United States with much higher unemployment. But the plan to bring 1,000 workers from the island to overwhelmingly white, conservative Branson over the next three years has sparked unease, with critics saying that the newcomers will steal work from residents or drag down wages or bump up crime.”

-- House lawmakers are considering a gas tax hike to fund a still nonexistent infrastructure program. From Ashley Halsey III: “There was bipartisan support at Wednesday’s hearing for increasing the fuel tax of 18.4 cents on gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel fuel, which was last raised in 1993 ... Given what is perceived as an immediate need for infrastructure investment, bumping up the tax on fuel seemed to committee members the best option.”

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN AND WOMEN:

-- VA Secretary David Shulkin announced sweeping changes at hospitals and clinics across the country following a report on alleged management failures at his deparment's flagship D.C. center. Lisa Rein and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux report: “Shulkin said one senior regional official has been reassigned and two others retired under pressure as part of an effort to clean up the management of hospitals and clinics[.] He said he is replacing leaders of about 20 medical centers across the country, including in Maryland and Virginia, after outside teams identified low-performing hospitals. …. The 142-page report found that at least three VA program offices that reported directly to him were aware of 'serious, persistent deficiencies' when he ran the Veterans Health Administration in 2015 and 2016. Shulkin said Wednesday that while the report said managers at the local and regional levels were long aware of the problems, ‘I was not aware of those issues. I was not aware until [Inspector General Michael J. Missal] picked up the phone, and I am very much appreciative of that. We took action on the very same day with leadership.’”

-- Top officials told senators they would have difficulty approving permanent security clearances for officials who failed to disclose “significant financial entanglements with a foreign adversary,” such as Kushner. Karoun Demirjian reports: “[Charles S. Phalen Jr., the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau,] and other federal background check officials declined to weigh in specifically on Kushner’s clearance, noting that there are no specific tripwires or dealbreakers outlined in the review process for security clearances. They also declined to weigh in on the greater problem of security reviews at the White House, where dozens of officials … have been operating with interim clearance, some since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. But they warned that, in general, the type of circumstances surrounding Kushner and the White House could jeopardize national security.”

-- There could be even more departures to come. Several White House staffers have been terminated or reassigned in recent weeks over security clearance issues — including one individual employed in the Office of the First Lady. ABC News’s John Santucci, Tara Palmeri, Katherine Faulders and Pierre Thomas report: “These individuals are likely lower level and could include people who work in the complex but not necessarily in the small confines of the West Wing. [Last week, John Kelly also] wanted a list of remaining White House staffers with security clearance issues presented to him. That list, per a source, followed standard procedures which included such options as considering whether the individual should be relieved of duty or could be reassigned to another administration post.”

-- A man who served jail time for allegedly assaulting his wife still handles a high volume of classified information at DHS. From Elise Viebeck: “Lawrence Curran was arrested and charged with felony strangulation and misdemeanor assault in Arlington, Va., after a July 2016 episode that left his wife with two broken ribs and substantial bruising around her neck and chest, according to court documents and a medical report from her treatment at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital. … Curran, 35, has worked as ‘section chief’ on the DHS secretary’s briefing staff since 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile as it appeared Wednesday morning.”

-- The upper ranks of the Trump administration are “filled” with climate change skeptics, according to a Politico review. Emily Holden reports: “Trump has chosen at least 20 like-minded people to serve as agency leaders and advisers … [who are already having an] impact in abandoning [Obama’s] attempt to help unite the world against the threat of rising sea levels, worsening storms and spreading droughts. … At the Interior Department, decisions about Pacific island territories threatened by rising seas are in the hands of an assistant secretary who has criticized ‘climate alarmists’ for ‘once again predicting the end of the world as we know it.’ [Sonny Perdue’s] top advisers include a former talk radio host who has dismissed much climate research as ‘junk science.’ Trump’s nominee to head research and technology at the Department of Transportation claimed three years ago that global warming had ‘stopped.'”

-- The 24-year-old whose rapid rise (and even quicker fall) at the Office of National Drug Control Policy who was revealed by The Post’s Robert O'Harrow Jr. now has a new job at HUD. Taylor Weyeneth will focus on opioid policy at the agency’s office of Community Planning and Development. He was forced to leave his White House post after O’Harrow’s reporting revealed inconsistencies in his resume. (Politico)

THE ROAD TO NOVEMBER:

-- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) accused his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, of changing his name to appeal to voters, prompting accusations of hypocrisy. Avi Selk reports: “While O'Rourke's first name is indeed legally Robert and he is white, he has used the traditionally Hispanic nickname Beto for decades. He also has not tried to hide his real one. … ‘Ted’ Cruz did exactly the same thing. Before moving to Texas as a child, he was born Rafael Edward Cruz — in another country, no less.”

-- Robert Costa writes the Texas primaries, while reflective of Democratic enthusiasm, also revealed fault lines in the party’s identity: “These squabbles, while at times seemingly parochial, could have sweeping implications for the future of Congress and the political soul of the party as it barrels toward November and then the 2020 presidential election.”

-- Speaking of internal battles: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) used a speech at a DNC gala to criticize Democrats who voted to roll back banking regulations. Dave Weigel reports: “‘Let’s build a party that stands against Republicans trying to roll back financial reforms — every one of us — rather than help the Republicans deliver even more goodies for big banks,’ Warren said at the DNC’s ‘I Will Vote’ dinner … Warren pointedly cited [the Senate’s banking] vote in a rundown of issues Democrats needed to ‘pick a fight on’ to win back voters who began to see them as Republicans-lite.”

  • Warren also announced she’s donated $5,000 to every state Democratic Party in the country, as well as $15,000 to the DNC. The contributions total $265,000 from Warren to Democrats nationwide. (Politico)

-- The Democrats are regaining an advantage on the generic ballot. From Philip Bump: “In January, Monmouth gave the Democrats a two-point lead; it’s now nine points. Quinnipiac’s new poll gave the Democrats a 10-point lead, lower than other recent polls from the pollsters but hardly bad news. RealClearPolitics compiles a running daily average of the generic ballot margin. In December, there was a lot of discussion of the sizable lead the Democrats enjoyed which, in January, became talk of how the margin was narrowing. Now it’s widening again, making up nearly half of what was lost from the December peak. The Democratic advantage now stands at 9.1 points.”

-- Republican leadership is increasingly blaming the GOP candidate in Pennsylvania’s special election, Rick Saccone, for how close the race has become. From Politico’s Alex Isenstadt: “In interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, senior House Republicans and top party strategists, Saccone was nearly universally panned as a deeply underwhelming candidate who leaned excessively on the national party to execute a massive, multimillion-dollar rescue effort. It was complete with visits from the president, vice president and several Cabinet members. They describe a candidate who largely ignored pleas to raise the money he needed, who blindsided the White House and the national party with his choice of a political strategist, and whose amateur-style social media feed included low-quality videos of him at a local bar and yukking it up with Santa.”

-- Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) is reconsidering whether he should seek reelection, after vowing to step aside amid multiple sexual harassment allegations. From the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Colton Lochhead and Ramona Giwargis: “The House Ethics Committee announced Dec. 21, 2017 that it would establish an investigative subcommittee to review allegations of sexual misconduct by Kihuen. The investigative panel was installed on Jan. 2. … NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada was one of numerous groups to call on Kihuen to resign after the allegations came to light in December. The group repeated that stance Wednesday. ‘In case we weren’t clear enough the first time, we will reiterate our message to Rep. Ruben Kihuen: no means NO,’ NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada director Caroline Mello Roberson said in a statement.”

-- Troubling new accusations emerged about a primary challenger against Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley in a Chicago-area district. Politico’s Natasha Korecki reports: “Benjamin Thomas Wolf, an Illinois congressional candidate whose provocative campaign has captured national media attention, has smoked weed in front of an American flag, brandished an AR-15 in a campaign ad and is running ads on porn sites. But his turn in the spotlight … has unearthed a troubled past, including accusations of abusive behavior toward women and claims that he inflated his resume. … Katarina Coates, a former girlfriend who interned for his campaign, [said] that Wolf was frequently physically and emotionally abusive, and ‘doxxed’ her by revealing her name and home address on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Trump placed the burden on China to solve its trade imbalance with the United States:

A writer for the Atlantic said this about the Seychelles meeting:

From a CNN reporter:

Erik Prince downplayed the meeting on CNN.

From an Obama-era Justice Department spokesman:

A House Republican called out his Democratic colleagues after reports emerged of Hope Hicks's email being hacked:

A Senate Democrat spoke out against the banking rollback:

Stormy Daniels's lawyer fired back at Trump, per a New York Times columnist:

Michael Cohen's role with the RNC was questioned:

The lieutenant governor of California traded barbs with Jeff Sessions:

A Daily Beast reporter mocked former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka's rationale on tariffs:

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) marked an important anniversary:

The New York Times added a noteworthy correction to a story:

And a writer for Upworthy predicted the end of civilization:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- Politico, “Kamala Harris keeps 'em guessing,” by Burgess Everett and Elana Schor: “One year into her stint in the Senate, the Democratic Party's newest rising star — and one of its most buzzed-about potential 2020 hopefuls — has cut a profile that offers few clues about her political aspirations. Expectations for her are especially high given that Harris hails from California, the center of the resistance engaged in an ongoing battle with the Trump administration.”

Great quote: “After seeing a picture of a reporter’s newborn, Harris shared a decidedly unpresidential memory of helping her younger sister Maya (a former top campaign aide to Hillary Clinton) potty train her niece while in the thick of law school. ‘I’m dealing with this brutal stuff, dog-eat-dog in school, and then I would come home and we would all stand by the toilet and wave bye to a piece of s---,’ Harris recalled. ‘It will put this place in perspective.’”

-- New York Times, “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned,” by Farhad Manjoo: “In January, after the breaking-newsiest year in recent memory, I decided to travel back in time. I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to home delivery of three print newspapers … It has been life changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins. We have spent much of the past few years discovering that the digitization of news is ruining how we collectively process information. Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed … in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.”

-- Politico Magazine, “Why Isn’t Wall Street Freaking Out About Trump?” by Ben White: “To Democrats, the market’s unperturbed optimism has become a source of consternation. Why can’t Wall Street see that Trump is a news cycle away from bringing down the republic? To Trump, it’s a gratifying endorsement of his leadership, a way to point at the scoreboard and taunt opponents. The American presidency is the world’s most powerful office, and its stability is the bedrock of markets. Was Trump really no big deal? I dialed up a dozen Wall Street players — traders, hedge-fund managers, some of the world’s top economic observers — to figure out whether all those anxious observers were getting it wrong, or they were.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Ben Carson Removes Anti-Discrimination Language From HUD Mission Statement,” from HuffPost: “[HUD] Secretary Ben Carson is changing the mission statement of his agency, removing promises of inclusive and discrimination-free communities. In a March 5 memo … [the] department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, explained that the statement is being updated ‘in an effort to align HUD’s mission with the Secretary’s priorities and that of the Administration.’ … The Carson mission statement is quite different from the current one, which is still up on HUD’s website. That one promises ‘strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.’ It also says these communities will be ‘free from discrimination’ … [Under] Carson, HUD has pulled projects meant to help the LGBTQ community, which included online training materials for homeless shelters to ensure equal access for transgender people.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT

“Virginia GOP says Democratic delegate violated fundraising ban during session,” from Laura Vozzella: “Despite a ban on raising political cash during Virginia’s legislative session, a state delegate headlined a fundraiser last weekend for a political action committee that has backed him in the past. Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) was one of two featured speakers at the Together Virginia PAC brunch at a community center in Arlington. The PAC, which aims to ‘connect rural and urban perspectives,’ donated a total of $7,000 to politicians last year, including $500 to Rasoul. Rasoul’s photo appeared on solicitations for the event, which said the PAC would use the funds raised to back Democrats across the state and to support projects like Democratic Promise, an initiative run out of Rasoul’s office. … ‘He knows you’re not supposed to be raising money during session. Period. Hard stop. End of sentence,’ said House Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah).”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump will have a Cabinet meeting and then host a roundtable with lawmakers and leaders in the video game industry.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“There are all these ways that things have fallen short,” Peter Thiel said of Trump’s presidency so far. “It’s still better than Hillary Clinton or the Republican zombies,” he said, referring to the other candidates.” (New York Times)

 

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

-- District residents will see cold temperatures and some clouds today, but keep an eye out for a winter storm starting Sunday. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “West winds at 10 to 20 mph much of the day add to the already unseasonable cold, with highs only in the low to mid-40s. Clouds are likely to be just scattered but pick up in numbers as the day progresses.”

-- D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said she won’t testify about the resignation of her former schools chancellor. Peter Jamison reports: “Bowser told the editorial board of The Washington Post that she would decline to appear before the D.C. Council’s education committee, saying it would be a ‘political circus.’ She said she would instead cooperate with a parallel investigation by the D.C. inspector general’s office that is underway.”

-- An FBI agent and his wife died in an apparent murder-suicide in Crownsville, Md. Police officers found Donna Fisher, 54, with multiple stab wounds and Special Agent David Raynor, 52, with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot to the head. (Justin Jouvenal)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Late-night hosts mocked Trump for his Stormy Daniels lawsuit:

Trevor Noah questioned Trump's assertion that there was no chaos, only “great energy” in the White House:

The first trailer for a documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg was released:

The secretary of state arrived in Ethiopia for a week-long trip:

An NBA star visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High:

And police pursued a suspect who ended up almost running himself over with his own car as he attempted to flee: