With Joanie Greve

THE BIG IDEA: “Despite what the Fake News says,” President Trump tweeted Thursday morning, Russia is “not happy” about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. As a point of fact, he could not be more wrong.

Moments earlier, Vladimir Putin had praised Trump for retreating. “On this, Donald is right,” the Russian president said during his year-end news conference in Moscow. “I agree with him.”

Russia is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally. Putin has propped him up since 2015 by stationing more troops inside Syria than the United States ever did, and experts — including those inside the Trump administration as well as across the ideological spectrum — agree that the Kremlin will be able to expand its sphere of influence on the ground if America abandons its anti-Assad allies.

-- “Moscow is celebrating,” said Victoria Nuland, the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security and the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under Barack Obama.

“After years of pretending to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis with Washington, Putin can ignore the entreaties of Trump’s envoys because the United States will have no military skin in the game to back its diplomacy,” Nuland explains in an op-ed. “The Kremlin will proceed as it has long planned, consolidating control over the rest of Syria for Assad until 2021 and then rigging an election for a new figurehead. Moscow will be too smart to expand its own ground presence in Syria, and will instead broaden its tacit support for the Iranian-backed militias that already serve as de facto local police forces in western Syria. Maybe it will allow Tehran to split the spoils from the Deir al-Zour oil fields; maybe all that cash will go back to Moscow.”

-- Six senators signed a letter on Wednesday night — including Republicans Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Joni Ernst — urging Trump to reconsider pulling out. “Both Iran and Russia have used the Syrian conflict as a stage to magnify their influence in the region,” they explained. “Any sign of weakness perceived by Iran or Russia will only result in their increased presence in the region and a decrease in the trust of our partners and allies.”

Rubio also retweeted a post from the Russian ambassador. “I found someone who is supportive of the decision to retreat from Syria,” he quipped, adding that Trump is making “a major blunder” that “will haunt this administration & America for years to come.”

-- The day before Trump’s announcement, our Beirut bureau chief, Louisa Loveluck, reported on the Russian government’s vicious disinformation campaign against Syria’s best-known civilian rescue group: “With the help of Western funding, the Syrian Civil Defense group — more commonly known as the White Helmets — has rescued tens of thousands of civilians from the rubble of Syrian and Russian airstrikes. More than 250 volunteers have been killed in the course of that duty, the group’s founder says. … In response, Russia is using state-run bodies and media outlets to mount a ‘brutal and unrelenting’ disinformation campaign against the organization, including bogus charges that the White Helmets are preparing chemical attacks on Syrian soil, the Britain-based Bellingcat research group said Tuesday. The campaign ‘has attempted to cast doubt on their ability to provide evidence, painted them as ‘terrorists’ and ultimately tried to transform them into ‘legitimate targets,’’ Bellingcat said in a report.”

“This isn’t just buzz on the Internet,” one former White Helmet, who was arrested and tortured by Syrian forces this year, told Louisa. “It has real-life consequences. We’re dying for this.”

-- Syria isn’t the only reason the Kremlin is celebrating.

The Trump administration announced on Wednesday that it intends to lift sanctions against the business empire of Oleg V. Deripaska, one of Russia’s most influential oligarchs, after an aggressive lobbying campaign by Mr. Deripaska’s companies,” the New York Times’s Ken Vogel reports. “The decision by the Treasury Department, which had been postponed for months, was both politically and economically sensitive … Mr. Deripaska and his businesses — including the world’s second-largest aluminum company, Rusal — were hit with sanctions in April in retaliation for Russian interference in the election and other hostile acts by Moscow. … The companies responded with a sophisticated multimillion-dollar lobbying and legal campaign seeking to delay and ultimately remove the sanctions in exchange for promises from Mr. Deripaska to give up majority ownership and control of EN , the holding company that controls Rusal. …

Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who has criticized the administration for being soft on Rusal, said the move to lift sanctions amounted to Mr. Trump ‘sliding another big gift under Vladimir Putin’s Christmas tree.’ Saying that the plan ‘appears to be a shell game brokered by a sanctioned Russian bank, VTB Bank, involving one of Putin’s closest buddies,’ Mr. Doggett said it ‘only encourages Putin to pursue his destabilizing activities around the world.’ …

The administration appeared to take pains to head off criticism that it was letting up on Moscow or Mr. Deripaska. The decision was disclosed on the same day that the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against a former Russian military intelligence officer who it said works for Mr. Deripaska, as well as several Russian intelligence officers and entities linked to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In a statement justifying the move, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said that the companies had been punished because of Mr. Deripaska’s ownership and control, ‘not for the conduct of the companies themselves.’”

-- Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) also expressed some skepticism of the deal, which they promised to monitor closely. They emphasized in a joint statement that the move by Treasury “does not change the fact that Mr. Deripaska, his employees, and his companies work at Vladimir Putin’s behest and operate as de facto representatives of the Russian government — a government that has occupied and intimidated its neighbors, sought to disrupt free and fair elections, violated nuclear treaties, and continued to wage influence campaigns to undermine western democracies, including our own.”

-- This comes just days after the Geneva-based World Economic Forum reversed its decision to ban three Kremlin-connected oligarchs — including Deripaska — from its upcoming meeting in Davos, caving to an intense Kremlin campaign that included calls to the Swiss president from the prime minister. “[The three] were disinvited … after being sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department over their ties to the Kremlin’s ‘malign activity around the globe,'" Vladimir Kara-Murza writes on DemocracyPost. “[S]ome of its most notorious envoys have once again been accepted by the Western elite; the clearest signal of ‘business as usual.’ This is not the first time in history that the democratic community chose appeasement over principle in dealing with an authoritarian regime — and it has never ended happily.”

-- Meanwhile, Ukraine’s foreign minister takes to the pages of Politico this morning to plead for more Western support in the face of egregious Russian violations of its sovereignty. Moscow has not faced meaningful consequences since attacking a Ukrainian Navy vessel and capturing 24 sailors last month in the Sea of Azov.

“With a level of contempt and disregard for international law with which the world is sadly all too familiar, Russia has sought to present our captured servicemen as ‘criminals,’” writes Pavlo Klimkin. “It blocked consular access, a direct violation of international laws, and gave us no information of their welfare for 11 days. But no crime has taken place. Our ships were navigating sea routes where freedom of navigation is guaranteed by international maritime law. This is not an opinion but an indisputable fact. … Russia’s jaw-dropping lack of respect for the rules that govern international waters is a significant and dangerous challenge to all law-abiding countries. …

“With this latest attack, Putin effectively has his hands around Ukraine’s throat and is tightening his grip. His ultimate goal is to suffocate and silence us; to see us fail so that he can subsume our country back into a new, emboldened Russian Empire. … But this assault is first and foremost an attack on the Western values that we, Ukrainians, so wholeheartedly share. That Ukrainian people have resolutely chosen to look westward — to the EU, to NATO, to the transatlantic community— is anathema to Putin. He cannot countenance or accept this, which is why he will do whatever he can to destroy Ukraine.”

-- Yet, on what could be remembered as one of the more consequential days of his presidency, Trump himself did not appear publicly. Someone like Ronald Reagan would have delivered a nationally televised address from the Oval Office to explain his reasoning to the American people. Trump, instead, recorded a short video in which he suggested that fallen American warriors are “looking down” from the heavens with approval for his decision. “That’s the way they want it,” he said, pointing toward the sky.

The president stayed up past midnight, approvingly tweeting praise he received from Laura Ingraham on her show:

He continued to tweet this morning, emphasizing that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) supports his moves. The Kentucky senator is a libertarian who traveled to Moscow this summer to promote rapprochement and has tried to downplay the Kremlin’s 2016 election interference.

-- But Rand is in the minority. Without explanation, for example, Trump canceled a scheduled afternoon meeting with retiring Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker after the Tennessee Republican had arrived at the White House. Corker had criticized the Syria announcement before coming over. “It’s obviously a political decision,” Corker told reporters afterward.

-- “Over a lunch on Capitol Hill, other GOP senators excoriated Vice President Pence for supporting Trump’s move,” Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim and Paul Kane report. “‘There was a great deal of concern expressed. … What is going to happen to the Kurds, who have fought by our side and helped defeat ISIS and probably need our protection?’ said Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). ‘I asked the vice president, “Who are going to be the members of the coalition to prevent ISIS from reconstituting and keep … Iran and Russia from completely taking over Syria?"' They did not receive satisfactory answers.”

HOW IT WENT DOWN:

-- Trump’s decision was made on Tuesday following a small meeting attended only by senior White House aides and the secretaries of defense and state, most of whom, if not all, sharply disagreed with the president. Karen DeYoung has turned the definitive ticktock: “In just the past week, senior officials — including the administration’s special envoys to Syria and the counter-Islamic State coalition — had said that defeating the last organized Islamic State pockets, in southern Syria near the Iraqi border, could be months away and that thousands of militants remained underground throughout Syria, waiting to reemerge. The officials reiterated that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-dominated group of U.S.-trained and -equipped ground fighters, remained valued American allies who would not be deserted. More broadly, they repeated in recent speeches and briefings, the ongoing U.S. troop presence was crucial leverage to assist U.N. efforts and to make the Iranians leave. …

“A number of close U.S. allies who are members of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State said they were not consulted and were given no prior warning. One European defense secretary put in a call Tuesday to Jim Mattis after hearing rumors of the decision and received a late-night call back from the defense secretary with confirmation. …

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not participate in the meeting with Trump and was in the dark until after it took place, according to several people familiar with the situation.

A State Department official said Wednesday that U.S. diplomats and aid personnel — their numbers already reduced following Trump’s earlier decision to eliminate American aid to reconstruct towns and cities where most of the anti-Islamic State fighting took place — would now be evacuated. Mercy Corps, the international aid organization that provides aid to about half the 2.7 million civilian population in U.S.-controlled eastern Syria, said it would probably have to reconsider its operations there.”

--Current and former White House officials … described the announcement as a ‘knee-jerk presidential reaction’ to Trump’s call last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Missy Ryan and Josh Dawsey report. “The Turkish leader has threatened to launch a military offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria in coming days. Those forces are the chief U.S. partners on the ground in Syria, and U.S. troops remain positioned in areas that would be affected by a Turkish assault. Officials said national security adviser John Bolton, who recently outlined a policy to remain in Syria to counter Iranian influence, was among those who opposed the move.”

  • “It was terrifying to us at one point when we’re trying to have thoughtful planning sessions about what to do in Syria, and he just said, ‘We’re getting out of there,’ ” one former official said. “He sees Syria as a totally useless desert.”
  • “I haven’t spoken to a person in the building who is happy about this,” a second official said.

-- DeYoung has additional reporting on the Turkish connection: “Officials familiar with the Friday call said that Erdogan, among other things, had stressed to Trump that the Syrian Kurds were terrorists — allied with Kurdish separatists in his own country … Jonathan Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the Syria decision also coincided with the administration’s notification to Congress late Tuesday that Turkey’s long-sought purchase of U.S.-produced Patriot missile defense batteries had been approved after a years-long battle over the terms of a deal between Ankara and Washington. ‘It would be disturbing if a strategic gesture was made for commercial reasons,’ Alterman said. … Trump’s Syria announcement came amid other major news in Ankara — a Turkish victory at the World Trade Organization in a ruling against expanded U.S. aluminum and steel tariffs and the arrival there of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a visit with Erdogan.”

-- Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi zeroed in on Turkish influence efforts as she decried Trump’s Syria move. “All Americans should be concerned that this hasty announcement was made on the day after sentencing in criminal proceedings began against the President’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who admitted that he was a registered foreign agent for a country with clear interests in the Syrian conflict,” Pelosi said in a statement. 

-- Trump’s decision is a clear rebuke to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey report: “Mattis had argued that the counterterrorism mission in Syria is not over and that the small U.S. presence in Syria should remain … The Pentagon chief also had tried to explain to Trump that there would be more chaos in the region and future problems for the United States if the troops leave … Mattis has been repeatedly overruled by Trump in recent months and left out of key discussions as the president pursues his own national security path. …

Trump continues to weigh whether he should keep Mattis in the role and tells advisers in the Oval Office that he doesn’t agree with his defense secretary on much, according to current and former administration officials. He rarely sees Mattis these days and does not speak with him as often as he did earlier in the administration. Mattis, for his part, has told colleagues that he wants to stay.

Mattis is also frustrated that Trump vetoed his choice to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … Trump announced this month that he has chosen Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, to replace [Dunford], who is due to step down next fall. Mattis had recommended the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David L. Goldfein. Trump also sidestepped Mattis’s concern about deploying U.S. forces to the U.S.-Mexico border this fall with only a vague mandate for border security. Mattis is said to be among the strongest skeptics about the pledge of denuclearization that Trump claims he received from Kim Jong Un …

In the beginning of his presidency, Trump often pointed to the military men he brought into his administration as evidence of his seriousness … But all those retired and current military officers are now gone (former national security advisers Flynn and H.R. McMaster), on the way out (chief of staff John F. Kelly) or, in the case of Mattis, pushed to the sidelines.”

THE GROUND TRUTH:

-- “The Islamic State remains a deadly insurgent force, analysts say, despite Trump’s claim it has been defeated,” Joby Warrick reports from Irbil, Iraq, with Souad Mekhennet in Washington. “Late last month, a column of Islamic State fighters in armored vehicles and on motorcycles thundered into eastern Syria to mount an unexpectedly fierce assault on U.S.-backed militias near the city of Deir al-Zour. The attackers overran multiple outposts and killed or captured dozens of soldiers before being driven back by U.S. warplanes. The next day, in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province, a roadside bomb killed four children as they traveled to their village school by truck. Local officials described the event as tragic but not surprising: The same province has experienced about 17 such attacks every month in the year since the Islamic State was officially declared defeated in Iraq. …

For many security experts, the depiction of the Islamic State as ‘defeated’ … is not only inaccurate, but is also dangerously misleading. Despite its setbacks, the group maintains a formidable presence in Syria and Iraq, commanding cadres of fanatical, highly trained fighters believed to number in the thousands, including many who went into hiding after the fall of the group’s self-declared caliphate. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, continues to fiercely defend its remaining strongholds in Syria against relentless attacks by Kurdish and Syrian ground forces and U.S. warplanes. And in Iraq, its scattered cells are waging a guerrilla campaign that is gaining in intensity in three provinces, judging from the number and lethality of the attacks. …

An abrupt departure of U.S. forces from Syria will almost certainly accelerate the group’s resurgence on both sides of the border, officials and security experts say. Without a significant U.S. military presence — which until now has included personnel who collect intelligence and coordinate airstrikes from forward operating bases — the Islamic State could regain its footing in Syria, and from there, direct terrorist operations inside Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere in the region and beyond. …

Multiple current and former U.S. intelligence officials echoed the view that the fight against the Islamic State is ‘unfinished.’ For several security experts, the news of the Trump administration’s decision evoked comparisons to the situation in Iraq after U.S. forces left that country in 2011 under a controversial agreement with Iraq’s Shiite-led government. In 2008, U.S. intelligence officials claimed success against the Islamic State in Iraq — the predecessor of the group that became ISIS — declaring that the terrorists had been ‘operationally defeated’ after a years-long campaign that targeted the group’s leaders and drove its followers into hiding. Just three years after the U.S. withdrawal, the Islamic State took control of a third of Iraq, becoming the largest and best-armed terrorist movement of modern times.”

-- Bottom line: Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

HOW IT’S PLAYING:

-- This morning’s clips — across the mainstream media, the conservative press and overseas — are just as brutal as they were after Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki.

-- WaPo commentary:

  • The Post’s Editorial Board: “Mr. Trump has justified some of his most controversial decisions, including his continued support for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as needed to contain Iran’s threat to the United States and its allies. But the Syria withdrawal hands Tehran and its ally Russia a windfall.”
  • Max Boot: “Trump’s surprise Syria pullout is a giant Christmas gift to our enemies.”
  • David Ignatius: “Trump’s abrupt decision to pull American troops from Syria is riskier than it looks.”
  • Josh Rogin: “Trump undermines his entire national security team on Syria.”
  • Ishaan Tharoor: “Trump’s Syria strategy was always a mess.”
  • Amanda Erickson: “A guide to America’s meandering Syria policy under Trump.”

-- Elsewhere:

  • AP: “Trump pulling out of Syria. Might Afghanistan be next?”
  • New Yorker: “Is Trump’s Plan for Syria a Withdrawal or a Surrender?”
  • MSNBC: “Pentagon, not happy. Putin, happy.”
  • CNN: “Trump is leaving the fight against ISIS (and influence in the Middle East) to Russia and Iran.”
  • Bloomberg’s Eli Lake: “Trump Courts Catastrophe in Syria.”
  • LA Times: “Pullout from Syria weakens U.S. hand in the Middle East and boosts Russia.”
  • New York Times: “A Strategy of Retreat in Syria, With Echoes of Obama.”
  • Wall Street Journal Editorial Board: “Trump’s Syria-Iran Retreat: Islamic State isn’t defeated, and the mullahs are delighted.”
  • Breitbart: “Corker: ‘In Many Ways,’ Trump’s Syria Decision ‘Worse’ Than Obama’s With Iraq.”
  • The National Review’s editors: “Stay in Syria.”
  • USA Today: “Sen. Graham: Trump's claim of ISIS defeat is 'fake news,' pulling troops is 'stain' on US.”
  • Slate: “Trump May Not Actually Care That Much About Iran.”

-- Overseas:

  • The Times of London: “Sudden withdrawal from Syria is green light for more Iranian meddling.”
  • Reuters: “Trump wrong to say Islamic State has been defeated in Syria: UK minister.”
  • Haaretz: “U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Shows Washington Is an Ally, but Only to a Point.”
  • The National: “Syria's Kurds call Trump withdrawal a 'stab in the back.’”
  • Voice of America: “Allies React With Alarm to Trump Pull-out Tweet, Kurds Fear Turkish Attack.”
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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- The Senate passed a short-term government funding bill denying Trump any new money for the border wall. Erica Werner, Paul Kane and Josh Dawsey report: “The agreement announced by [Mitch McConnell] would fund the federal government through Feb. 8, averting a partial shutdown scheduled to take effect at the end of Friday absent action by Congress and Trump. But the spending bill would not include any of the $5 billion Trump is demanding for his wall, and it would punt the next round of border wall decisions into the new year, when a new Democratic majority in the House will have the power to stop wall funding from going through Congress. Without Congress, Trump’s only remaining options for fulfilling his wall promise would rely on a series of legally dubious strategies that face opposition from newly empowered Democrats at every turn.

“The Senate passed the legislation by voice vote late Wednesday, and the House was expected to take it up on Thursday. Congressional leaders said they expected Trump to sign it before the shutdown deadline. But the mercurial president — who just a week ago declared he would be ‘proud’ to shut down the government over the wall funding — did not publicly announce his support for the deal, throwing the outcome into question as Trump’s conservative allies on and off Capitol Hill mounted a furious lobbying campaign to convince the president to reject the deal.”

-- Trump tweeted about the need for a wall this morning, but he didn’t provide clarity on whether he would veto the spending bill:

-- The Trump administration is pursuing a plan to enforce stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients. Danielle Paquette and Jeff Stein report: “The country’s food assistance program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, already requires most adults without dependents to work if they collect food stamps for more than three months in a three-year period. But USDA regulations allow states to waive the requirement in areas with unemployment rates that were at least 20 percent greater than the national rate. The USDA is now proposing that states could waive the requirement only in areas where unemployment is above 7 percent. The current national unemployment rate stands at 3.7 percent. Approximately 2.8 million able-bodied recipients without children or an ailing person in their care were not working in 2016, according to the USDA’s latest numbers. Roughly 755,000 live in areas that stand to lose the waivers.”

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. The Dow tanked to its lowest level of 2018 after the Fed raised its benchmark interest rate a quarter-point while lowering its 2019 growth forecast. Fed Chair Jay Powell said the economy remained “healthy,” but added there are indications it is “softening” as the central bank decreased its forecast of 2019 interest-rate hikes from three to two. (Heather Long)

  2. Illinois’s attorney general revealed that her investigators uncovered 500 additional allegations of clergy sexual abuse compared to those disclosed by the Catholic Church. Lisa Madigan said the probe “has revealed that allegations frequently have not been adequately investigated by the dioceses or not investigated at all.” (Michelle Boorstein)

  3. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles knew for at least 13 years that one of its bishops had been accused of sexual abuse. The public only learned this week of the allegation after Bishop Alexander Salazar offered his resignation to the Vatican. (LA Times)

  4. Former Blackwater security guard Nick Slatten was convicted of the murder of an unarmed Iraqi civilian in 2007. Slatten now faces a life sentence without parole for his role in the 2007 incident, which resulted in the deaths of 14 civilians and drew international condemnation. (Tom Jackman and Spencer S. Hsu)

  5. Otto Warmbier’s family testified in federal court, asking a judge to find North Korea liable for his death. Warmbier’s parents are seeking more than $1 billion in damages from Kim Jong Un’s regime. (Susan Svrluga)

  6. Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation reached a historic deal that would eliminate the need for Cuban players to defect. Under the terms of the deal, “release” fees would be paid for the services of Cuban players. But the Trump administration signaled it was uncomfortable with an arrangement that allowed the Cuban government to profit. (Dave Sheinin and Karen DeYoung)

  7. Reporters Without Borders named the United States as one of the world’s five deadliest countries for journalists. Citing the shooting deaths of five Capital Gazette employees, the group chose to include the United States in its list for the first time. (NBC News)
  8. The German magazine Der Spiegel fired a journalist for fabrication “on a grand scale.” Award-winning reporter and editor Claas Relotius admitted to inventing quotes and characters included in more than a dozen major articles. (New York Times)

  9. A new study found that Saturn’s rings are already halfway to their death. The study’s authors concluded the rings are “raining” into Saturn’s interior at a “worst case scenario” rate. (Sarah Kaplan)

  10. Actress Eliza Dushku wrote an essay slamming the workplace culture of CBS after it was reported she received a $9.5 million settlement over sexual harassment complaints. Dushku described CBS’s account of “Bull” actor Michael Weatherly’s alleged harassment as “deceptive,” adding that the “boys’ club remains in full force at CBS.” (Elahe Izadi)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Special counsel Bob Mueller has formally requested a transcript of Roger Stone’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, signaling that prosecutors could be moving to charge him with a crime. Carol D. Leonnig, Ellen Nakashima, Rosalind S. Helderman and Manuel Roig-Franzia report: “It is the first time Mueller has formally asked the committee to turn over material the panel has gathered in its investigation of Russian interference of the 2016 campaign ... The move suggests that the special counsel is moving to finalize his months-long investigation of Stone — a key part of Mueller’s inquiry into whether anyone in [Trump’s] orbit coordinated with the Russians. … Securing an official transcript from the committee would be a necessary step before pursuing an indictment that Stone allegedly lied to lawmakers, legal experts said. The special counsel could use the threat of a false-statement charge to seek cooperation from Stone, as Mueller has done with other Trump advisers, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn and longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

“It is unclear what aspect of Stone’s testimony Mueller is scrutinizing. But Stone has given conflicting accounts about what prompted him to accurately predict during the 2016 race that WikiLeaks was going to unleash material that would hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In an interview Wednesday, Stone said he had not been notified of Mueller’s request. But he said he is confident that the transcript of his testimony will not provide the special counsel with grounds to charge him. ‘I don’t think any reasonable attorney who looks at it would conclude that I committed perjury, which requires intent and materiality,’ Stone said.”

-- Casting doubt on his independence, Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr — who would take charge of overseeing the Mueller probe if confirmed by the Senate — sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department in June blasting the scope of Mueller’s probe. The Wall Street Journal’s Sadie Gurman and Aruna Viswanatha report: “The 20-page document … provides the first in-depth look at Mr. Barr’s views on the special counsel’s Russia investigation ... In the memo, Mr. Barr wrote he sent it as a ‘former official’ who hoped his ‘views may be useful.’ He wrote he was concerned about the part of Mr. Mueller’s probe that, according to news reports in the Journal and elsewhere, has explored whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice in asking then-FBI director James Comey to drop an investigation into ... [Michael] Flynn’s contacts with Russia, and by later firing Mr. Comey. Mr. Barr’s memo, dated June 8 and sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, argues that, based on the facts as he understands them, the president was acting well within his executive-branch authority. …

“‘As I understand it, his theory is premised on a novel and legally insupportable reading of the law,’ Mr. Barr wrote. ‘Moreover, in my view, if credited by the Justice Department, it would have grave consequences far beyond the immediate confines of this case and would do lasting damage to the Presidency and to the administration of law within the Executive branch.’ Mr. Barr’s memo is peppered with strongly worded phrases about the peril he sees in Mr. Mueller’s reading of the law, as he understood it. He described Mr. Mueller’s approach as ‘grossly irresponsible’ with ‘potentially disastrous implications’ for the executive branch. He also wrote: ‘Mueller should not be permitted to demand that the President submit to interrogation about alleged obstruction.’”

-- Past sworn statements from the president indicate a solid knowledge of campaign finance law, which could come into play if he is ever prosecuted for his alleged involvement in Michael Cohen’s hush-money payments to Trump’s alleged mistresses. The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus and Joe Palazzolo report: “In 2000, the Federal Election Commission investigated allegations that Trump Hotels & Casinos violated the law related to a fundraising event for a Senate candidate. Mr. Trump’s sworn affidavit ‘indicates that Trump had a very thorough understanding of federal campaign finance law, especially regarding what he could and could not legally do when raising money for a federal candidate,’ said Brett Kappel, an election-law lawyer at Akerman LLP. In the four-page affidavit that Mr. Trump signed, he stressed he had a particular familiarity with laws governing corporate contributions to candidates. Mr. Trump said he was acting in his ‘individual,’ not corporate, capacity when he hosted the event; that he had paid for the reception costs ‘from my personal funds’; that he ‘took no action, of any nature, kind or description, to compel or pressure’ any employee to donate to the campaign ahead of the event; and that he wasn’t reimbursed for any of the costs. The FEC decided to take no action against the company.”

-- BuzzFeed News won a defamation lawsuit over its publication of the Steele dossier. Deanna Paul and Tom Hamburger report: “The dossier claimed at one point that Russian Internet entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev’s companies, Webzilla and XBT Holding, played a role aiding the Russian government’s effort to hack documents from Democratic Party officials. Gubarev filed a lawsuit in February 2017 alleging his reputation had been damaged by false statements included in the dossier. … On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro for the Southern District of Florida held that the dossier dealt with a matter of public concern and reporting the details of an ongoing government investigation was made in the public interest.

-- The District of Columbia's attorney general filed a lawsuit against Facebook for allegedly mishandling user data. Tony Romm, Brian Fung, Aaron C. Davis and Craig Timberg report: “The lawsuit from Karl Racine on Wednesday targeted Facebook mainly for its entanglement with Cambridge Analytica  … The opening salvo from the D.C. attorney general ended a protracted silence on the part of many U.S. regulators, who have faced immense pressure — from members of Congress and average web users — to discipline Facebook for what many see as a reckless disregard for online privacy. … But the fact that the first legal action came from local D.C. officials — not their federal counterparts located a short ten minutes’ walk away — left some privacy advocates fearful that the U.S. government’s primary consumer-protection cop increasingly is outmatched by Silicon Valley.

-- During last year’s Alabama Senate race, a group of Democratic tech experts experimented with the disinformation tactics used by Russia in 2016. The New York Times’s Scott Shane and Alan Blinder report: “The secret project, carried out on Facebook and Twitter, was likely too small to have a significant effect on the race, in which the Democratic candidate it was designed to help, Doug Jones, edged out the Republican, Roy S. Moore. But it was a sign that American political operatives of both parties have paid close attention to the Russian methods, which some fear may come to taint elections in the United States."

-- With an interview of former attorney general Loretta Lynch, the House GOP's controversial investigation into the FBI’s handling of probes into the Trump campaign's alleged dealings with Russia and Hillary Clinton’s private email server appeared to quietly conclude. Karoun Demirjian reports: “Lynch met behind closed doors with members of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees for nearly seven hours in what Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) called ‘the swan song for a wild-goose chase by the Republicans.’ … [Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Oversight Committee] said he was unaware of any plans to summarize the panels’ findings. He noted that he could not speak for Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), but that his preference would be ‘to release the transcripts and let people read them for themselves.’”

-- Looking ahead, the incoming Democratic chairman of the House Oversight Committee renewed more than 50 requests for information from the Trump administration that were ignored over the past two years. From John Wagner: “The move ... provided a list of some early targets. [Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)] said that none of the requests are altogether new. They previously were made ... but the Trump administration refused to fully comply — an option that will become more difficult once House Democrats are armed with subpoena power.” Some of those target include Ivanka Trump’s email practices, the administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria and the now-reversed migrant family-separation policy.

THE IMMIGRATION WARS:

-- A federal judge struck down Trump administration policies making it more difficult for victims of gang violence and domestic abuse to seek U.S. asylum. Matt Zapotosky reports: “In a 107-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan wrote that the policies were ‘arbitrary and capricious and contrary to law’ and ordered the government to cease their implementation … In their lawsuit — which focused on migrants who had been placed in fast-track deportation proceedings — [advocacy] organizations argued the new policies prevented migrants from getting a fair hearing on whether they could stay in the United States, and that thousands of people could potentially be affected.”

-- Attorneys for the father of a 7-year-old girl who died in the custody of Border Patrol said the pair were not provided water while they were detained. Robert Moore and Nick Miroff report: “The lawyers also said Border Patrol agents presented the girl’s father with English-language documents, which he signed, in the hours after her death on Dec. 8, raising the possibility that U.S. authorities sought an agreement — as he was grieving — to voluntarily leave the country. … CBP officials have said food and water were available at the small border outpost in New Mexico where Jakelin and her father were held after crossing into the United States on the night of Dec. 6, and that the child consumed both after having nothing to eat or drink for several days. Nery Caal, 29, has disputed the government’s account, and his attorneys said cookies were the only thing available to the families in custody that night.”

-- A 5-month-old girl detained by the Border Patrol was hospitalized with pneumonia after her mother said they were held in “freezing” cells. BuzzFeed News’s Adolfo Flores reports: “The girl had been taking the antibiotic amoxicillin, but [her mother, identified as A. Portillo] said she wasn't allowed to keep the medication in detention. She described the temperatures inside the cells as ‘freezing.’ Portillo told agents that her daughter was sick shortly after being detained, but they told Portillo it was normal and that everyone coming into the holding cells was ill. She wasn't allowed to get new medication or see a doctor. ‘I said I needed a hospital because her breathing was getting worse,’ Portillo told BuzzFeed News. ‘The agents told me I wasn't in a position to be asking for anything and that they didn't tell me to come to the United States.’”

-- One of Trump's earliest backers signaled she would not vote for him again in 2020 if he doesn't make good on his promise to build a border wall. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reports: “In a radio interview Wednesday, Ann Coulter, a conservative who has criticized the lack [of] progress on the wall, declared she won't vote for Trump in 2020 if the wall isn't built. ‘They're about to have a country where no Republican will ever be elected president again,’ Coulter told the station WMAL. ‘Trump will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people, amused the populists for a while, but he'll have no legacy whatsoever.’ It remains to be seen if his supporters will chalk this up as a loss. Trump has continued to pledge he will get his ‘big, beautiful wall.’ Despite aides signaling an impending concession on the border wall, the President outwardly insisted Wednesday that the wall will be built ‘one way or the other.’”

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN:

-- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke assumed his office as a rising national star. He’s leaving embroiled in scandal, facing five active investigations. Darryl Fears, Juliet Eilperin and Josh Dawsey have a deep dive on Zinke’s brief tenure: “[Zinke’s] star was so bright that [Mitch McConnell] lobbied against his Cabinet appointment, thinking Zinke was almost a sure bet to defeat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who was reelected this year. To some liberal conservationists, Zinke appeared to be a conservative who could bridge the partisan divide. The Senate confirmed him with 68 votes. But Zinke was anything but bipartisan. His zeal in carrying out [Trump’s] vision of ‘American energy dominance’ by boosting coal and gas production on public lands angered Democrats who supported him, and his tendency to overstep the limits of his power at Interior worried Republicans and the president.”

-- Mick Mulvaney intends to give Trump more leeway in his decision-making than John Kelly. Politico’s Nancy Cook reports: “Mulvaney will adopt a much larger role in politics and messaging, and plans to take a more laissez faire approach to some quirks of the Trump White House that irked Kelly — like non-essential staffers attending meetings, or the president frequently reaching out to longtime friends, Republican lawmakers and advisers for advice or dinners in the White House residence. … The result could be an even more freewheeling White House.”

-- “Wilbur Ross said he divested a stock holding — but he didn’t,” by the Center for Public Integrity’s Carrie Levine: “Ross was supposed to sell his BankUnited, Inc. stock, valued at up to $15,000, within 90 days of his Senate confirmation [as commerce secretary], according to his federal ethics agreement — in other words, by the end of May 2017. Ross twice submitted disclosure reports to federal ethics officials saying he had divested the stock — once in a transaction report from May 2017 and another time in his annual financial disclosure from August 2018. But in October, Ross filed another transaction report with ethics officials acknowledging he had … not divested the BankUnited stock when he said he did — and continued to own it until October 1, 2018.”

THE REST OF THE AGENDA:

-- The Senate unanimously approved a bill to make lynching a federal hate crime. Elise Viebeck reports: “Sponsored by the Senate’s three African American members, Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the bill would ensure that lynching triggers an enhanced sentence under federal law like other hate crimes. … Booker introduced the bill with Harris, another possible presidential hopeful, and Scott following what Harris described as 200 previous attempts by Congress to pass similar legislation.” The bill’s passage came after nearly a century of failed attempts.

-- A Texas judge’s ruling that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional could force Republicans into the awkward position of defending Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation. Carolyn Y. Johnson reports: “If the ruling is upheld on appeal, it will leave Republicans in Congress scrambling — again — to preserve the health-care benefits Americans demand, from protections for those with preexisting conditions, to free preventive care and allowing parents to keep their children on their policies until they turn 26. It also undermines the president’s own health-care agenda, particularly his vows to rein in prescription drug prices and ramp up the response to the opioid crisis, both of which crucially depend on the law’s provisions.”

-- A last-minute rush of Obamacare enrollments suggests Americans are undeterred by the ruling. Amy Goldstein reports: “Nearly 8.5 million Americans signed up for [ACA] health plans for 2019 in the 39 states relying on HealthCare.gov … The decrease from 8.8 million last year was significantly less precipitous than many had expected in light of the court decision and actions by Congress and the Trump administration to weaken the law. … For most of the six weeks of open enrollment — a shortened period adopted by the Trump administration in 2017 — enrollment was lagging by about 11 percent compared with the equivalent week last year. But the more than 400,000 who selected coverage during the final week this time actually exceeded the sign-ups during the same period last year.”

-- Two U.S. airmen have sued Jim Mattis after they were discharged from the military over their HIV status. Paul Sonne reports: “Both active-duty airmen said they tested positive for HIV last year during Air Force screenings. After they started antiretroviral treatments, their doctors deemed them asymptomatic and physically fit to deploy, and their commanders backed their continued service. … Last month, however, the two airmen received word that they had been deemed unfit for military service and would be discharged. The stated reason: The U.S. military bans personnel with HIV from deploying to the Middle East, where the majority of Air Force members are expected to go.”

-- The Senate’s approval of a criminal justice bill aimed at reducing mandatory minimum sentences is the culmination of a significant pivot since the GOP championed the “war on drugs.” Katie Zezima and Sean Sullivan report: “Republicans say the change is a way to right the wrongs of the 1980s ... by restoring basic fairness to the criminal justice system. It also has a financial component: Republicans said revising the criminal justice system will save money by moving people convicted of low-level offenses out of prison and into programs that will help reduce the recidivism rate.”

-- Paul Ryan delivered his farewell address, emphasizing economic accomplishments while acknowledging unfinished work on several “complex problems.” From John Wagner and Mike DeBonis: “Ryan said that Congress, under his leadership, has kept promises ‘to move our economy from stagnation to growth’ and ‘to restore our military might.’ But, he said, ‘certainly one Congress cannot solve all that ails us. Not every outcome has been perfect.’ He called for ‘a great rethinking of how we help the most vulnerable among us’ and urged his colleagues not to let the issue of poverty ‘drift from your consciousness.’ Ryan also acknowledged that bringing down the national debt through Social Security and Medicare reforms remains an aim unfulfilled.” 

2020 WATCH:

-- Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the only senator to support Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, said he would not defer to Sanders as he weighs a White House bid. ABC News’s Avery Miller and Rick Klein report: “While he had praise for Sanders, he said for 2020, ‘I’m not necessarily deferring to anyone.’ Merkley also said his family is on board if he decides to run. ‘They had a veto over the project, and they have all now given it a thumbs-up,’ he said. He said he plans to make his decision in the first three months of 2019.” (The Post created a graphic of all the potential Democratic candidates to let readers see how they would narrow the 2020 field.)

-- Potential 2020 contender Kamala Harris is well known as the only African American woman currently serving in the Senate, but the Indian American community is also eager to claim her. McClatchy’s Katie Glueck reports: “If Kamala Devi Harris runs for president, the Democratic senator is poised to be championed by Indian-Americans, a constituency with significant representation in the donor community, growing numbers of political activists and candidates — and a sizable presence in states that will play key roles in the Democratic primary, from California to Texas. … Harris, of California, is the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who was born in India, and Donald Harris, born in Jamaica. The senator identifies as both African-American and South Asian-American, according to her Senate website, which notes that she is the country’s first South Asian-American senator — a background that opens doors with a diverse set of voters.”

-- Trump has been telling aides he wants Vice President Pence to stick with him on the 2020 ticket. CNBC’s Brian Schwartz reports: “The development comes amid media speculation that Trump could ditch Pence in favor of another running mate. Trump has told confidants that he wants Pence to be his running mate in the next election, and the vice president has privately told him he's ready to defend the administration against a likely onslaught of Democratic presidential candidates running to replace them, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.”

-- Recent population shifts could have a major impact on the 2020 presidential race. Politico’s Marc Caputo, Steven Shepard and Scott Bland report: “[Those] demographic shifts [could cement] Florida’s premier swing-state status, [vault] Arizona onto the list of 2020 swing states and perhaps [put] Nevada further out of reach for [Trump’s] reelection campaign. Both the year-over-year changes and the longer-term trends this decade point to a transformed electoral map in 2020 — shaped both by population shifts and the Trump-enhanced realignment that has come to define modern politics.”

-- Four GOP legislators in Kansas have defected to the Democratic Party. The AP’s John Hanna reports: “State Sen. Dinah Sykes and Rep. Stephanie Clayton joined two other moderate lawmakers who switched last week. All four women are from Johnson County, which is the state’s most populous county and which Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly carried in the November election. … Clayton said her decision to leave the GOP was prompted by concerns that its leaders are not committed to boosting public school funding. She also acknowledged that her constituents, particularly women, are upset with Trump and said her discomfort with his policies helped pushed her to leave the GOP.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

A Post reporter spotted a metaphor at the DOJ:

A former Trump foreign policy adviser who just spent two weeks in prison for lying to the FBI and who now plans to run for Congress in California posted an update with his wife:

Conservative news outlets expressed frustration with the proposed funding deal:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the handful of Republicans to praise Trump for pulling out of Syria, celebrated the demise of the Weekly Standard:

A founder of the conservative magazine replied:

A senator who was criticized for a comment about a "public hanging" presided over the passage of an anti-lynching bill, per an NBC News reporter:

One of the bill's sponsors marked its historic passage:

Donald Trump Jr. offered this message to Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) after she disputed a Politico report:

(Politico said it stood by its reporting.)

An MSNBC host quit Facebook:

The general manager for the Nationals hung out with senators:

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) celebrated the deal that would streamline the entry of Cuban baseball players to the United States:

But one of Flake's Republican colleagues requested more government scrutiny of the deal:

And Politico's Capitol bureau chief expressed solidarity with one visitor to the Hill:

A presidential historian remembered this moment between a president and his vice president:

GOOD READS:

-- “Being a boy: Age 17,” by Ellen McCarthy: “Relationships and sex have always been tricky territory for teenagers, but the landscape today is charged with fraught questions about coercion, culpability and consent. A young man such as Jayden Castillo stands at the center of the minefield. Like boys all over the country, Jayden grew up in a world that taught him to be indomitable, tough and aggressive. Those are the traits so many spheres of society demand of boys and revere in men. And they are the same qualities that sometimes lead to trouble — for guys and others in their midst.” (This is the third part of a series on being a boy. Part One and Part Two have already been published.)

-- Bloomberg Businessweek, “The Dallas Mavericks’ New CEO Is Cleaning Up a #MeToo Mess,” by Mary Pilon: “The chief executive officer of the Dallas Mavericks, Cynthia ‘Cynt’ Marshall, arrived at the office on media day in September with her phone already buzzing. Most of the messages concerned a blistering 43-page report chronicling two decades of toxic workplace culture in the team’s front office. … The report was the latest development in a saga that had been unfolding since February, when a story in Sports Illustrated revealed the ‘corrosive’ environment at the Mavs under former CEO Terdema Ussery.”

-- GQ, “The Fresno Bee and the War on Local News,” by Zach Baron: “What fills the void left behind by dead newspapers? … It's not that local newspapers like The Fresno Bee are perfect — far from it. It's just that they...contain news. Lose them and you lose the basic building blocks of any political or social conversation, which are facts. Information. Knowledge. Are your schools good or bad? Does your air have poison in it? What exactly does Devin Nunes do every day in Washington, when he's not in Fresno? You either know or you don't.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“The White House has transitioned from daily press briefings to monthly press beratings,” from Philip Bump: “What was once a norm for a presidential administration, trotting out the press secretary to answer various questions on the news of the day, has become, particularly of late, a rarity on [Trump’s] watch. Press secretaries used to hold daily briefings in part because it made their jobs easier, allowing them to answer common questions shared by members of the media in one fell swoop, instead of having to answer the same thing over and over. When an administration’s position is that the media is necessarily unhelpful and when the only true authority for representing Trump’s position in any given moment is Trump himself, that becomes somewhat less useful.”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“GoFundMe campaign for border wall aims for a billion (at least),” from Politico: “Brian Kolfage, a 37-year-old Florida resident who was severely wounded in the Iraq war, has started a GoFundMe campaign to complete Trump's signature pledge. The campaign has raised over $2 million in the three days since it started, with an overall goal of $1 billion. Trump initially told congressional leaders that he would accept nothing less than $5 billion for his wall in a bill to keep most of the federal government open.  … In a statement on the campaign's site, Kolfage said the $1 billion is the current max for GoFundMe, but he is working to raise it. He added that if the roughly 63 million Americans who voted for Trump donated $80 each, they would be able to raise the $5 billion the president is asking Congress for.”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump will participate in a bill-signing ceremony today.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“I love the Senate. It’s a great place. It’s amazing the country has survived all of us, but it’s a remarkable country and the Constitution is a remarkable document.” — Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) after his last Senate vote. (NBC News’s Frank Thorp)

 

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

-- Rain will once again return to Washington by midday. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “A glimpse of the sun is possible at daybreak but clouds quickly fill in. By midday, showers begin to develop in the region and become more numerous as the afternoon wears on. A light northeast breeze is likely to keep cool air stuck over the region much of the day with highs in the mid-40s.”

-- The Capitals fell to the Penguins 2-1. (Isabelle Khurshudyan)

-- The Wizards lost to the Rockets 136-118. (Candace Buckner)

-- Two pedestrians died after they were hit by a tour bus along Pennsylvania Avenue. Dana Hedgpeth reports: “They were struck around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. They were taken to a hospital with injuries that police had said were life-threatening. The crash is under investigation.”

-- Environmentalists and many Maryland residents are opposing Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to build a Washington Redskins stadium in Oxon Cove Park. Rachel Chason reports: “[Hogan (R)] has taken a key step to gain control of the land from the federal government. Environmentalists and many residents are livid, demanding that the park on the banks of the Potomac River be left untouched. Local officials, who were blindsided by Hogan’s plans, are mostly playing catch-up.”

-- The population of D.C. surpassed 700,000 residents for the first time since 1975. Virginia and Maryland also saw modest increases. (DCist)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Samantha Bee hosted an immigration-themed holiday special called “Christmas on ICE”:

Seth Meyers mocked Trump's border wall and his shuttered charity as scams:

Barack Obama surprised a D.C. children's hospital with gifts:

George H.W. Bush's service dog, Sully, is moving on to work with veterans at Walter Reed:

And a tiny home stolen from St. Louis was found more than 30 miles away: