With Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: The bear in the woods has become an elephant in the room. It’s easy to grow numb to the drip, drip, drip of daily developments in L’Affaire Russe. But taken together they form quite a stippling. And what happened in a Manhattan courtroom on Wednesday is momentous.

After Michael Cohen requested that he avoid prison because of his assistance to special counsel Bob Mueller, a federal judge sentenced President Trump’s longtime attorney to three years and ordered him to pay about $2 million.

The system worked. In many countries, a sitting president’s former consigliere, campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, national security adviser and foreign policy adviser would not get charged with crimes — let alone go to jail for them. But no one should be above the law in America. Each has now copped to felonious misconduct as part of a plea deal or, in the case of Paul Manafort, been found guilty by a jury of his peers.

But, but, but: Just because law enforcement and the independent judiciary have functioned as the founders intended so far doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. Trump won’t pardon Cohen because he feels betrayed by him, but he could pardon others to reward them for staying loyal. Longtime confidant Roger Stone has not been charged with a crime, but the president recently praised him publicly for saying he’ll never testify against him. Trump has even maintained that he has “the absolute right” to pardon himself.

If his son or son-in-law found themselves in legal jeopardy, would the president still let the justice system run its natural course? Critics remain worried that Trump or his appointees at the Justice Department could move to rein in Mueller, in ways big or small. It’s also possible that the special counsel’s report could be concealed from the public. There’s also a chance that, if it becomes public and if it outlines wrongdoing, Congress would choose not to act on it. For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues to block a vote on bipartisan legislation designed to protect Mueller that would almost certainly pass the Senate if he allowed it to come up on the floor.

Cohen had already pleaded guilty when he flipped on Trump this summer, but his sentencing hearing was nonetheless striking. Here are six intriguing quotes stemming from the session — and why they matter:

1. Cohen: “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”

The president’s lawyer expressed regret for his “blind loyalty” to Trump, which she said led him “to choose a path of darkness over light.” He sought to present himself as a victim who fell under the spell of a billionaire developer — and who has faced his wrath for cooperating with the federal government.

“For months now, the president of the United States, one of the most powerful men in the world, publicly mocks me, calling me a rat and a liar, and insists that the court sentence me to the absolute maximum time in prison,” he told the judge as he pleaded for leniency. “Not only is this improper, it creates a false sense that the president can weigh in on the outcome of judicial proceedings that implicate him.”

2. Mueller deputy Jeannie Rhee: “Mr. Cohen has sought to tell us the truth, and that is of utmost value to us.”

Rhee, speaking for the special counsel, told the judge that Cohen “has endeavored to account for his criminal conduct in numerous ways” by providing “credible and reliable information about core Russia-related issues under investigation.”

“That is worrisome for Trump,” Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report from New York. “But, as it has throughout the investigation, Mueller’s team held its cards close. … Rhee said she could not go into detail about the ongoing Russia investigation but said Cohen was ‘helpful’ to the probe. Cohen, she said, was ‘careful to note what he knows and what he doesn’t know.’ … Mueller’s prosecutors did not recommend any particular punishment in their case but said he should not serve any additional prison time beyond his sentence in the New York case.”

3. The National Enquirer’s parent company acknowledged paying hush money to a woman who alleged an affair with Trump to “suppress the woman’s story” and “prevent it from influencing the election.”

This came out yesterday as part of a non-prosecution agreement between federal prosecutors and American Media Inc., which owns the tabloid. The filing, signed back in September but not made public until now, reveals that Cohen “and at least one other member of the campaign” met with David Pecker, who controlled the Enquirer, in August 2015: “At the meeting, Pecker offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate’s relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided. Pecker agreed to keep Cohen apprised of any such negative stories.” Was the other person Trump himself?

“In the agreement, AMI said it would cooperate with prosecutors and admitted it paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal before the 2016 election to silence her allegations of an affair with Trump,” Sarah Ellison and Paul Farhi report. “Prosecutors also allege that Pecker and AMI played a key role in the effort to silence [Stormy] Daniels. One month before the election in 2016, after an agent for Daniels informed National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard that Daniels intended to tell her story publicly, Pecker and Howard contacted Cohen. Soon after, Cohen negotiated a $130,000 deal to buy Daniels’s silence. The agreement suggests that Pecker, who has a long-standing relationship with Trump, is of ongoing use to prosecutors. ‘Pecker has a deep industrial knowledge of how Trump and Cohen operated,’ said one former Enquirer staffer.”

In a separate filing last Friday, the U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of New York directly implicated Trump in the illegal payments: “In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”

4. Donald Trump: “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.”

That’s the opening of a three-part tweetstorm this morning. He said that the payments, which he initially denied knowing about at all, weren’t meant to influence the campaign and that they were private transactions.

Trump has told people close to him in recent days that he is alarmed by the prospect of being impeached, NBC News reports this morning: “‘The entire question about whether the president committed an impeachable offense now hinges on the testimony of two men: David Pecker and Allen Weisselberg, both cooperating witnesses in the SDNY investigation,’ a close Trump ally told NBC News. Weisselberg is the chief financial officer for Trump organization who was allegedly in the center of the hush money operation. He was reportedly granted immunity for his testimony.”

5. U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III: “Our democratic institutions depend upon the honesty of our citizenry in dealing with the government.”

The judge described Cohen’s misdeeds — including lying to a bank, lying to Congress and lying to the IRS — as a “veritable smorgasbord of criminal conduct.” He said it’s good Cohen cooperated, but that he “should have known better” because he was a trained lawyer. Pauley told the defendant that “a significant term of imprisonment is fully justified … to send a message.”

The judge then called out Cohen specifically for making false statements to the Senate Intelligence Committee last year about the status of negotiations with Russians regarding a potential Trump Tower real estate project in Moscow. “Mr. Cohen’s crimes implicate a far more insidious crime to our democratic institutions, especially in view of his subsequent plea to making false statements to Congress,” he said.

Josh Campbell, who previously served as a supervisory special agent with the FBI and a special assistant to the bureau's director, pointed to the host of crimes Cohen accepted guilt for. “As a former investigator, I see the Cohen affair's most damning revelation to be the President's knowing and longtime association with a criminal, not that the criminal in question pleaded guilty to a crime that directly implicates the President of the United States (as disturbing as that is),” he writes for CNN. “If you or I were attempting to carry out a crime, we would likely have a very hard time finding other people to join our effort. Most of us don't associate with crooks. Apparently, not so with Trump. When faced with an embarrassing situation that might threaten his candidacy, all he had to do was turn to a close confidante in his orbit.”

6. Cohen attorney Lanny Davis: “At the appropriate time, after Mr. Mueller completes his investigation and issues his final report, I look forward to assisting Michael to state publicly all he knows about Mr. Trump.”

Davis, who also defended Bill Clinton during impeachment, sent a statement to reporters saying he’ll no longer represent Cohen as a lawyer now that sentencing is complete, but he said he will continue to serve as a “communications adviser.” Davis then made clear that Cohen is not going away, even after he reports to prison on March 6 in Otisville, N.Y. He said that Cohen wants to talk with “any appropriate congressional committee interested in the search for the truth and the difference between facts and lies.”

There’s certainly interest among Democrats on Capitol Hill to hear what he has to say. Among other things, Cohen served as the national deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee until June 20.

“Cohen’s sentencing clears a path for Congress to uncover the truth,” writes former Justice Department attorney John Barrett, an associate counsel under Iran-contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, in a new op-ed. “Now that the criminal justice system is done with him, Congress can gather that information — plus the testimony of others whom Justice is done with — without impairing criminal law enforcement. This sequencing — the Justice Department going first and then Congress investigating — offers a unique opportunity for oversight, accountability and public information about criminal conduct close to the White House and potentially involving the president. … [Cohen] can be brought from his cell to Capitol Hill. And Congress can, if necessary, get a court order compelling him to testify.”

-- Flashback: There’s a tweet for everything. Almost exactly three years ago, Cohen trolled Hillary Clinton by joking that her room and board would be free when she went to prison for perjury. Since pleading guilty, including to perjury, he’s deleted this tweet:

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- A federal judge last night ordered both Mueller and former national security adviser Michael Flynn to turn over additional investigative records describing his January 2017 interview with FBI agents — a conversation in which Flynn later admitted he lied. Carol Leonnig reports: “In an order filed Wednesday evening, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan demanded to see the formal FBI records and all other relevant documents detailing Flynn’s interview with the agents in 2017 and agreed to review them under seal. The judge’s request for more information could delay Flynn’s sentencing, which had been scheduled for Tuesday. He asked for documents to be turned over by Friday at 3 p.m. … The judge is well known for his concern about defendants receiving fair treatment from the government. ... Sullivan famously threw out a jury’s 2008 public corruption conviction of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens after it was discovered that prosecutors and agents had hid evidence of key government witnesses giving conflicting accounts.”

-- Flynn’s lawyers suggested in their filing requesting no jail time that Flynn was somehow duped by the FBI. Greg Miller, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who literally wrote the book on this case, responds: “In reality, there was no ambush. Flynn knew the FBI was investigating his secret conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the final days of 2016. And his deceit was more extensive than an isolated ‘error in judgment.’ He had delivered a message to Moscow that arguably undermined his own government, then provided false accounts about that conversation not only to the FBI but to Vice President Pence, Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer and a reporter for The Washington Post.”

--Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty in Australia of charges related to sexual abuse … becoming the highest-ranking Vatican official to face such a conviction,” Chico Harlan reports from Verona, Italy. “Pell, who has categorically declared his innocence, had taken a leave of absence from the Vatican’s third-most-powerful position, as the economy minister, to fight the charges. The Vatican on Wednesday did not address the explosive case, but it did announce that in October Pope Francis had removed Pell from his advisory group known as the Council of Cardinals. … Francis’s tepid responses on specific cases related to high-ranking clerics and abuse have sent his favorability rates plunging. ... The Pell conviction was first reported by the Daily Beast, which said that the charges stemmed from the abuse of two choir boys in the 1990s. His case in Melbourne has unfolded in secrecy because of a court-issued gag order.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. The U.S. taxpayer-funded news network that described billionaire George Soros as a “nonpracticing Jew of flexible morals” has produced other offensive content. The federal agency that oversees Radio and Television Martí is now investigating both the Soros report and an op-ed published this fall that warned of migrants’ “Islamization” of Europe. (Aaron C. Davis)

  2. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) attacked Soros after ProPublica announced a partnership with the Louisville Courier-Journal. ProPublica, which receives a small amount of funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is funding a year-long investigative reporting project into a Kentucky government program. Bevin wrote of the news on Twitter, “OUTRAGEOUS. ProPublica, a left-wing activist group funded by the likes of George Soros, is now funding . . . ‘investigative reporting’ at the @courierjournal.” (Eli Rosenberg)

  3. Tribune Publishing has paid a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times more than $2.5 million to avert a lawsuit that would have revealed an anti-Semitic comment by former chairman Michael Ferro. Ferro allegedly claimed that California billionaire Eli Broad was part of a “Jewish cabal” that ran Los Angeles — a comment that was recorded by former Los Angeles Times publisher Davan Maharaj, who initially pursued a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company. (NPR)

  4. A Florida commission investigating the Parkland shooting concluded multiple law enforcement officers failed to respond appropriately to the massacre. The commission’s draft report cites unlocked school entrances, unresponsive sheriff’s deputies and confusion in the building as contributing factors to the shooting that left 17 people dead. (Mark Berman and Laura Meckler)

  5. The Boy Scouts of America is considering filing for bankruptcy. The group is facing a number of lawsuits over alleged sexual abuse by Boy Scout leaders. Filing for bankruptcy would allow the nonprofit to end the litigation and start negotiating with the alleged victims. (Wall Street Journal)

  6. Apple intends to build a new campus in Austin. The tech giant already has more than 6,000 people in Austin, but the new 133-acre campus will accommodate 5,000 additional employees with the capacity to grow to 15,000. (Wall Street Journal)

  7. Google CEO Sundar Pichai called fears about harmful applications of artificial intelligence “very legitimate.” “I think tech has to realize it just can’t build it and then fix it,” Pichai said in a Post interview. “I think that doesn’t work.” (Tony Romm, Drew Harwell and Craig Timberg)

  8. The Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary released a report on its ties to institutionalized racism. The study found that all four of its founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery.” (Marisa Iati)

  9. At least 12 sea lions in the Pacific Northwest have been mysteriously killed by gunshot wounds to the head. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement is investigating the string of attacks, which began in September. (Jason Bittel)

  10. The organizers of a Christmas event were forced to apologize after the Santa they hired responded to a fire alarm by ripping off his beard and yelling at children. One customer who was present for the outburst wrote on Facebook, “He came [charging] in, ripped his hat and beard off in front of 50 odd kids and started shouting and swearing at people to leave.” (CNN)

ON CAPITOL HILL:

-- Nancy Pelosi clinched the votes needed to become House speaker after she agreed to step aside by 2022. Mike DeBonis reports: “After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating, Pelosi backed off her resistance to setting a date for her departure but avoided becoming an immediate lame duck. … Almost immediately, seven Democratic holdouts said they would back Pelosi. Their support would be enough to secure the House majority that she needs for her election to speaker on Jan. 3 … Under the accord, Pelosi, 78, will back a three-term limit for the top four House Democratic leaders, with a possible fourth term if Democratic members vote by a two-thirds majority to retain them. The limit would be retroactive, meaning Pelosi, incoming House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), incoming House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — all of whom held the same posts from 2007 to 2011 — would be effectively limited to one, maybe two, terms going forward if the policy is adopted.”

But hurdles remain: “The term-limit proposal is subject to a vote of House Democrats next year — one that could very well become contentious, with Hoyer and Clyburn expected to oppose it. The limits would not extend to committee chairmen, a proposal that could have sparked political warfare among House Democrats. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that he was not for term limits of any sort, dismissing Pelosi’s discussions: ‘She’s not negotiating for me.’ … Clyburn said Wednesday that Pelosi had not consulted him about the proposal but said he had ‘no concerns’ the deal might affect him. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a close friend of Clyburn’s and the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he thought the term limit was immaterial. ‘If he’s here another six years, I would doubt that he’s going to be in the same position,’ he said, suggesting Clyburn might move up to a more senior post with a new term limit.”

-- The Senate voted to start debating a measure to end U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a resolution meant to punish the Saudi crown prince for his alleged involvement in the death of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Karoun Demirjian and Shane Harris report: “The 60-to-37 vote exceeded the expectations of the Yemen resolution’s supporters, who had guessed that most of the 14 Republicans who backed an opening procedural measure last month would peel away as it advanced. But 11 Republicans — including the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James E. Risch (R-Idaho), a Trump ally — joined all Democrats in voting to start debating the resolution. The development sets up a likely vote Thursday to pass the resolution, provided even part of this coalition holds together. Its passage would send a significant political message to Trump that the status quo on relations with Saudi Arabia is no longer acceptable and also would be the first time the Senate had successfully invoked the War Powers Resolution since it became law in 1973.”

But even if the resolution does pass, it is most likely dead on arrival in the House, where lawmakers voted against considering a similar measure: “Wednesday’s Senate vote came just hours after CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed House leaders about the agency’s assessment that [Mohammed bin Salman] probably ordered the killing of Khashoggi. … When House leaders emerged from the briefing with Haspel on Wednesday, none claimed that her testimony had proved Mohammed’s culpability ... "

-- Coming to Riyadh's defense, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly challenged the CIA's assessment. Anne Gearan reports: “Some of the CIA findings in the Khashoggi case are ‘inaccurate,’ Pompeo told ‘Fox & Friends.’ … Pompeo, who was CIA director until replacing Rex Tillerson at the State Department last spring, did not elaborate when Fox hosts ... asked whether the central CIA finding implicating the prince was false or inaccurate. ‘Look, we all know that they’re still working on this. This is still a developing set of facts with respect to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The intelligence community is working diligently on that,’ Pompeo said. ‘The direct evidence, this is what I’ve said before, the direct evidence isn’t yet available. It may show up tomorrow. It may have shown up overnight and I haven’t seen it.’”

-- The Senate Yemen vote is the latest example of senators from both parties pushing back more forcefully against the strong-armed leadership of Mitch McConnell. Paul Kane writes: “In its final days in session, the Senate has shaken off some parliamentary and legislative rust to force [McConnell] into policy debates that he would have preferred to brush aside. … Regardless of the motives, rank-and-file senators have employed a mix of unique techniques, old-fashioned threats and insider persuasion to spark debates that had been blocked or delayed. It has left McConnell (R-Ky.) with a seemingly looser hold on power, which could translate into more opportunities next year for Democrats and any GOP allies willing to oppose Trump.”

-- Case in point: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is expected to demand a vote on amending the chamber’s criminal justice bill. Seung Min Kim reports: “Cotton, along with Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), are drafting an amendment to the First Step Act that would bar people convicted of various offenses, including certain sex crimes, from being able to qualify for reduced sentences. Those crimes are not explicitly listed in the new 149-page draft of the bill released Wednesday, although its authors have disputed claims that violent criminals would be prematurely released under their legislation.” But the Senate, after allies of reform forced McConnell's hand, is planning to consider the bill this month.

-- The House and the Senate reached a deal to overhaul policies to handle accusations of sexual harassment. Elise Viebeck reports: “Members involved in the talks predicted that the bill would be adopted quickly in both chambers and that the new rules would take effect before January, when the new Congress convenes. While exact legislative language was not released, the Senate Rules Committee confirmed that lawmakers will be required to reimburse the Treasury Department for settlements and awards resulting from harassment or retaliation they commit. Under the current system, settlements are paid for by taxpayers.”

-- The Senate narrowly advanced a repeal of the Trump administration's policy that allows “dark money” groups to withhold their donors’ names from the IRS. But House Republicans aren't likely to act. Michelle Ye Hee Lee reports: “The Senate move is unlikely to survive the GOP-led House, which must vote on the resolution before the end of the year, or receive the support of [Trump], whose Treasury Department enacted the rule earlier this year. Still, Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who pushed for the resolution, cheered the vote, which was made possible with unanimous support from Democratic senators and the backing of one moderate Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine.”

-- Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) bought tens of thousands of dollars of stock in a major defense contractor (Raytheon) just days after cheerleading record defense spending. The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay reports: “After [we] asked about the purchase, Inhofe’s office said the senator had contacted his financial adviser to cancel the transaction and instructed him to avoid defense and aerospace purchases going forward. … Federal lawmakers are prohibited from trading stock based on non-public information. But since news of Trump’s massive Pentagon budget request was already public when Inhofe purchased the stock, it likely would not have run afoul of congressional insider trading laws even if Inhofe himself were behind the transaction.”

THE IMMIGRATION WARS:

-- Trump’s increasingly urgent demands for wall funding are causing a crisis for congressional Republicans as they seek to avoid a partial government shutdown. Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan and Seung Min Kim report: “A day after Trump declared he would be proud to let funding lapse for dozens of government agencies if he does not get the money he wants for the wall, congressional Republicans signaled little appetite Wednesday to join his cause. Some expressed befuddlement at Trump’s strategy, while others sidestepped his comments, marking a new rift between the president and his party on Capitol Hill with just weeks left at the helm of both chambers of Congress. ‘I don’t understand the ­strategy, but maybe he’s figured it out and he’ll tell us in due course,’ said John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. ‘But I don’t understand it.’ The disconnect reflects the divergent priorities of Trump and Republicans in Congress during the twilight of their two-year grip on the federal government. While Trump made the wall a signature issue in his 2016 campaign, congressional GOP leaders have displayed less enthusiasm for it.”

-- The Trump administration is considering a proposal to deport a class of protected Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom have lived in the United States since fleeing the Vietnam War. The Atlantic’s Charles Dunst and Krishnadev Calamur report: “In essence, the administration has now decided that Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the country before the establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam are subject to standard immigration law — meaning they are all eligible for deportation. … Washington and Hanoi have a unique 2008 agreement that specifically bars the deportation of Vietnamese people who arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995 — the date the two former foes reestablished diplomatic relations following the Vietnam War. The White House unilaterally reinterpreted the agreement in the spring of 2017 to exempt people convicted of crimes from its protections, allowing the administration to send back a small number of pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants, a policy it retreated from this past August. Last week, however, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi said the American government was again reversing course.”

-- Dozens of retired state and federal judges called on ICE to stop conducting arrests of undocumented immigrants at courthouses. The AP’s Alanna Durkin Richer reports: “Nearly 70 former judges from 23 states — including federal judges and state supreme court justices — said in a letter sent to Acting [ICE] Director Ronald Vitiello that courthouse arrests are disrupting the criminal justice system. … The judges are urging Vitiello to add courthouses to the list of so-called ‘sensitive locations’ that are generally free from immigration enforcement, like schools and places of worship. They say that only ‘unequivocal guarantees and protections will restore the public’s confidence that it can safely pursue justice in our nation’s courts.’”

-- An immigration judge revoked the green card of immigration and reproductive-rights activist Alejandra Pablos over a DUI arrest from eight years ago. Marissa J. Lang reports: “Pablos, who since 2016 had worked for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health in Annandale, said she plans to appeal the decision by immigration Judge Thomas Michael O’Leary. Pablos said that her life would be in danger if she were deported to Mexico, where abortion remains largely illegal and activists have been targeted with threats and violence. A petition asking Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) to grant a pardon for the 8-year-old DUI arrest that thrust her into deportation proceedings garnered more than 10,000 signatures in 24 hours.”

-- “She was supposed to be deported, leaving 3 children. Instead, she hid in a church,” by Arelis R. Hernández: “Rosa Gutierrez Lopez had already purchased the plane ticket to return to the country she fears. Federal immigration officials said she had to leave by Dec. 10. … The Fredericksburg, Va., resident couldn’t imagine leaving her 11-year-old daughter and her sons, ages 9 and 6, the younger of whom has Down syndrome. … So Gutierrez Lopez, 40, never boarded the airplane. Instead, she sought sanctuary at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda. Advocates say she is the first undocumented immigrant to take refuge at a Washington-area house of worship since a regional network of congregations mobilized in recent years to resist tougher enforcement by [Trump].”

THE NEW WORLD ORDER:

-- British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a “no confidence” vote from her Conservative Party and said she would not seek reelection, but doubts linger about her Brexit deal. William Booth, Karla Adam and Michael Birnbaum report: “May won the party-only vote by 200 to 117 — comfortably surpassing the simple majority of 159 votes she needed to hold on to power. But it was hardly a victory. The public brawling and parliamentary challenge by her fellow Tories leaves May a wounded leader. The British prime minister is now immune to a leadership challenge by her party for a year, but she faces lawmakers hostile to her Brexit deal, which remains broadly unpopular. In Brussels, May’s survival offered measured relief to E.U. leaders, who have little option other than hoping she can hold on and get the Brexit deal approved by Parliament before the March 29 exit date. But many countries have sped up emergency preparations, fearing that Britain’s political paralysis will lead it to crash out of the E.U. without a deal.”

-- The second arrest of a Canadian in China raised fears that Beijing was retaliating against Ottawa for detaining Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou. Anna Fifield and Amanda Coletta report: “China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that both Michael Kovrig, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, and Michael Spavor, who runs cultural exchanges with North Korea, were detained on Monday on ‘suspicion of engaging in activities that endanger national security.’ Both men worked for nongovernmental organizations and appear to have been picked up for violating China’s strict new rules aimed at controlling the work that foreign NGOs do in China, part of a broader crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression.”

-- Mueller is expected to outline Middle Eastern countries’ attempts to influence U.S. politics in the coming months. The Daily Beast’s Erin Banco reports: “While one part of the Mueller team has indicted Russian spies and troll-masters, another cadre has been spending its time focusing on how Middle Eastern countries pushed cash to Washington politicos in an attempt to sway policy under President Trump’s  administration. Various witnesses affiliated with the Trump campaign have been questioned about their conversations with deeply connected individuals from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, according to people familiar with the probe. … Now, according to those same sources, the Special Counsel’s Office is ready to outline what cooperating witnesses have told them about foreigners’ plans to help Trump win the presidency.”

-- Nikki Haley said she relied on Trump’s “unpredictable” nature to advance his agenda at the United Nations. “He would ratchet up the rhetoric, and then I'd go back to the ambassadors and say: 'You know, he's pretty upset. I can't promise you what he's going to do or not, but I can tell you if we do these sanctions, it will keep him from going too far,'" Haley said. She added, “I got the job done by being truthful, but also by letting him be unpredictable and not showing our cards.” (NBC News)

WEST WING INTRIGUE:

-- Trump turned down Rep. Mark Meadows for White House chief of staff, saying he prefers the North Carolina Republican keep defending him in Congress. Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey report: “Trump spent much of Wednesday in his executive residence speaking privately with friends and senior aides about dozens of candidates [to replace John Kelly], including Meadows, as he tries to narrow down a list that has expanded ever since Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, bowed out of consideration over the weekend. Two names being floated late Wednesday by top Trump aides include acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, who was with the president at last weekend’s Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, and former Trump deputy campaign manager David N. Bossie, who is scheduled to have lunch with Trump on Friday, according to White House officials. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie continues to have boosters pushing for him inside the White House.”

-- Rick Santorum took himself out of the running. “I would again be honored to do it at some point in time, maybe. But at this point, it just doesn’t fit for me and my family, and so I guess the answer right now would be a no,” the former Pennsylvania senator said on CNN. (Kristine Phillips)

-- Avi Selk compares serving as Trump’s chief of staff to hosting the Oscars: “No one wants to host the Oscars this year because it’s a thankless performance — doomed to be picked apart by critics and blamed for inevitably disappointing ratings. And that’s assuming the chosen host is not first undone by a homophobic tweet scandal, as was Kevin Hart this month. And yet, someone will surely be found to take these doomed positions, because someone always does.”

-- Rudy Giuliani continues to seek out business for his security company from governments around the world even as he serves on Trump’s legal team. The New York Times’s Kenneth P. Vogel reports: “[Giuliani] was in Manama, Bahrain, on Tuesday, meeting with the king and the interior minister of an important United States ally in the Middle East. … In his role representing Mr. Trump in [Mueller’s investigation], Mr. Giuliani is not a government employee, and is not subject to government ethics rules, including prohibitions on outside work. But as his visit to Bahrain showed, Mr. Giuliani’s various interests can lead to confusion over the nature of his role. And foreign officials who have reason to want to get in or stay in the Trump administration’s good graces could view hiring Mr. Giuliani’s firm as a good way of doing so, according to ethics watchdogs.”

-- Melania Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity she keeps up with the news of the day and often offers her opinion to the president. “I follow what’s going on. And I give my husband advice and my honest opinion,” the first lady said. "And sometimes he listens and sometimes he doesn’t.” She added, “I don’t agree with his tone sometimes and I tell him that.” (Fox News)

2020 WATCH:

-- Julián Castro announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee as he weighs a 2020 bid. John Wagner reports: “Castro, 44, a former San Antonio mayor and former housing and urban development secretary under President Barack Obama, announced the move in a four-minute video distributed on social media. He also launched a new website to promote his expected candidacy. ‘As a kid growing up on the west side of San Antonio, I never thought that I’d one day be making this announcement: . . . I’m exploring a candidacy for President of the United States in 2020 to renew the promise of this country for all,’ Castro said on Twitter. … Castro says in his video that he plans an announcement in Texas on Jan. 12 about whether he will move forward with a White House bid.”

-- Billionaire activist Tom Steyer has posted anonymous job listings on LinkedIn for staffers to help him weigh a 2020 bid. The New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher reports: “‘A high profile political campaign based on the West Coast is seeking highly skilled political professionals to join our national campaign team,’ the job description begins. It describes ‘state director’ posts in Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Nowhere is Mr. Steyer’s name mentioned in the posting. But the language and structure matches verbatim those of job opportunities listed with one of Mr. Steyer’s other political efforts, NextGen America. Both seek, for instance, ‘prior training in anti-oppression, equity and inclusion organizing.’ A spokeswoman for Mr. Steyer, Aleigha Cavalier, acknowledged that he was responsible for the LinkedIn advertisement.”

-- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said she is “seriously considering” running for president. “I’m thinking through it very carefully,” the Hawaii Democrat said when asked about her plans by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. (MSNBC)

-- Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he's “not planning” to launch a campaign. BuzzFeed News’s Nidhi Prakash reports: “‘I am not planning to run for president,’ Murphy said, after being asked directly to say yes or no on a 2020 campaign. ‘I don’t have any plans to go to Iowa or New Hampshire.’ Asked if he would give a ‘hard no’ on a presidential campaign, Murphy reiterated, ‘I have no plans right now.'”

-- Climate change is shaping up to be a key issue for the 2020 Democratic primary. Michael Scherer reports: “Aides to a half-dozen senators considering a 2020 campaign met with supporters of the Green New Deal, an effort pushed by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that could turn into a litmus test for Democratic candidates, organizers said. Other potential candidates are weighing activist demands to swear off donations from the political action committees or executives of companies involved in fossil fuel production. … At the core of the push is a broader effort by some party leaders to reframe the political debate over climate away from policies that would impose new costs on carbon pollution — through taxes or a cap-and-trade program — toward a focus on investing in energy conservation and efficiency as a way to spark economic development, especially in economically depressed areas.”

MIDTERMS FALLOUT:

-- North Carolina Republicans may have to hold a new primary if a second election is called in the congressional race marred by allegations of election fraud. The New York Times’s Timothy Williams and Alan Blinder report: “The North Carolina Legislature on Wednesday approved a bill requiring new primary elections if the state elections board calls for a second vote of a congressional election. … The bill, backed by substantial majorities among both parties, could eventually place Republicans in the awkward position of choosing whether to stick with [Mark] Harris, who appeared to have narrowly won a [9th Congressional District] primary and general election— both now buffeted by allegations of irregularities including tainted absentee ballots — or replace him on the ballot. … The legislation approved Wednesday, first by the State House and soon after by the State Senate, creates the possibility that Robert M. Pittenger, the incumbent, could again face off against Mr. Harris in a rematch of the Republican primary that Mr. Harris won with the help of a significant number of absentee votes.”

-- A silver lining: Meadows being passed over for chief means there won't be two House special elections in North Carolina next year.

-- Former Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum was not named in federal authorities’ 66-page indictment of a Tallahassee politician and a city official accused of corruption. Politico’s Marc Caputo reports: “Republicans spent at least $7 million on TV ads — 27 percent of the total $26 million dropped on air in the general election — attacking Gillum in connection with the FBI probe. But the investigation, records indicate, ultimately had little to do with the former mayor.” 

-- The gun-control group Everytown said a solid majority of candidates it endorsed in 2018 won. Katie Zezima reports: “In its annual year-in-review memo, Everytown said that 150 of the 196 candidates endorsed by its political arm, the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, in the midterm elections won seats. They include places where gun control has not typically been a galvanizing issue, such as Kansas and Nevada, where Democrats Laura Kelly and Steve Sisolak were elected governors. Democrat Lucy McBath, whose son was killed in a dispute over loud music at a Florida gas station, won a seat in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Trump made the dubious claim that Mexico would indirectly pay for the wall through the renegotiated NAFTA:

From The Post's Fact Checker columnist:

From a CNN reporter:

A Senate Republican dodged a CNN reporter's questions about Michael Cohen:

Obama's former U.N. ambassador pushed back against arguments that Trump would have won the election even if the public knew about Cohen's hush-money payments:

But Joe Biden's former chief of staff argued the question itself was irrelevant:

A Post reporter outlined how Trump's defense has evolved as more news comes out of the Russia investigation:

A New Republic writer highlighted this factoid about the special counsel:

A presidential historian reminded his Twitter followers of this quote that was proven incorrect:

A Post reporter compared the political climates in the United States and Britain:

A Guardian reporter quipped:

Supermodel Chrissy Teigen expressed confusion about the situation in Britain:

A member of the House GOP leadership acknowledged Trump's comments during the meeting  could hurt the caucus:

A New York Times reporter flagged this alarming statistic:

A BuzzFeed News reporter noted this somber anniversary:

Trump's HUD secretary endorsed the president's decision to expand the Opportunity Zone program:

A Post editor analyzed reports the Trump administration is considering deporting Vietnamese immigrants:

The first lady visited U.S. service members:

Two potential 2020 rivals ran into each other in Washington:

A HuffPost reporter imagined a long-shot 2020 contender:

The ACLU's national political director tweeted a photo with a former Senate majority leader:

A former MLB MVP offered to become Trump's chief of staff:

And a Senate Republican cried foul over a proposal in his home state:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- “The New Authoritarians Are Waging War on Women,” by the Atlantic's Peter Beinart: “[A]uthoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries. Some are mired in recession; others are booming. Some are consumed by fears of immigration; others are not. But besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.”

-- “Tariff Man: An Origin Story,” by the New York Times: “This story starts in the 1980s. Donald J. Trump had built an empire on real estate, with a big boost from his father. But all around him, he saw a growing threat to American business: Japan, the second-largest economy on the planet.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Rep.-elect Mark Green walks back claim that vaccines cause autism,” from Felicia Sonmez: “Rep.-elect Mark Green (R-Tenn.) is walking back comments at a town hall in which he promoted the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism and said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have ‘fraudulently managed’ data on the topic. Green, a physician who last month won the House seat being vacated by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), made the remarks Tuesday night in response to a question from a town hall attendee. ‘Let me say this about autism,’ Green said, according to a video of the exchange posted by the Tennessean. ‘I have committed to people in my community, up in Montgomery County, to stand on the CDC’s desk and get the real data on vaccines, because there is some concern that the rise in autism is the result of the preservatives that are in our vaccines.’ … In a statement Wednesday night, Green said that his comments about vaccines had been ‘misconstrued.’”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Mika Brzezinski described Mike Pompeo with a homophobic phrase. Her non-apology didn’t help,” from Deanna Paul: “MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a ‘wannabe dictator’s butt boy’ during a segment of ‘Morning Joe’ on Wednesday. The remark — which is considered both homophobic and vulgar — related to a less-than-impassioned response from Pompeo about the murder of [Jamal Khashoggi]. … ‘I understand that Donald Trump doesn’t care,’ Brzezinski said to host Joe Scarborough. … ‘But why doesn’t Mike Pompeo care right now? Are the pathetic deflections that we just heard when he appeared on Fox & Friends — is that a patriot speaking?’ Brzezinski continued, ‘Or a wannabe dictator’s butt boy?’ … Some of her more than 850,000 Twitter followers found the language disturbing. Others called the epithet ‘despicable.’ … Brzezinski’s response, through Twitter, did not satisfy the critics.’ ‘Totally agree with you -SUPER BAD choice of words. I should have said ‘water boy’ . . . like for football teams or something like that. … SO SORRY!’ she tweeted … ”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump will meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and later sit down with governors-elect. He and the first lady will attend two Christmas receptions tonight.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

Donald Trump Jr. revealed that the president is a regifter: “There was one Christmas where he may or may not have given me the gift I had given him the year before, because I had monogrammed it,” Don Jr. said of his father. “And I’m like, ‘I know you didn’t get this.’ ‘How do you know that?’ ‘Because I gave it to you last year.’” (HuffPost)

 

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

-- Washington will see more clouds today, but temperatures will slightly rise. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Mostly cloudy skies with just light breezes from the southeast help temperatures edge a bit milder. Most areas should reach the middle to upper 40s by afternoon, but some spots could touch a milder 50.”

-- The Wizards lost to the Celtics 130-125. (Candace Buckner)

-- The Nationals traded Tanner Roark to the Cincinnati Reds for reliever Tanner Rainey. Jesse Dougherty reports: “[The move] gives the Nationals more financial flexibility in their pursuit of strong starting pitching. Roark had mostly been a part of the Nationals' rotation since 2014 and finished last season with a National League-high 15 losses.”

-- A judge halted efforts to get Initiative 77, the proposal to raise the minimum wage for Washington’s tipped workers, back on the ballot. Fenit Nirappil reports: “Advocates were poised to submit more than 25,000 signatures needed to again ask voters next spring to require employers to pay a higher base wage to tipped workers. … Judge Neal E. Kravitz agreed with opponents, who are backed by the local restaurant industry, that elections officials failed to follow proper procedure when they allowed referendum supporters to collect signatures.”

-- Prince George’s County is being sued for alleged racial discrimination. Lynh Bui and Rachel Chason report: “Two police associations representing black and Hispanic officers and 12 current and former officers filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland. They assert that the department denies officers of color promotions and disciplines them more harshly than white officers. The suit also accuses the department of unfairly transferring, demoting or firing those who complain of biased treatment, creating an environment that fosters distrust between police and the community.”

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Seth Meyers questioned Trump's commitment to the United States being a "nation of laws" after Cohen was sentenced:

Christine Blasey Ford made her first public statement since testifying at Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing:

Two former secretaries of state danced with actor Shah Rukh Khan at a wedding in India:

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) explained why she chose to come to the Senate as she prepares to leave it:

In another farewell speech, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called for a compromise on LGBTQ rights and religious liberty:

And a man dressed as Santa Claus confronted Conservative official Michael Gove as he entered Parliament: