with Joanie Greve and Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: President Trump would have an easier time weathering the political storm created by Michael Cohen if more people believed that he was trustworthy.

But his well-documented record of making false and misleading statements, as well as flatly denying press reports that are supported by documentary evidence, complicates his efforts to refute the explosive congressional testimony provided this week by his longtime fixer and former attorney.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 36 percent of Americans think Trump is honest.

At this point, it’s not so much a credibility gap. It’s a credibility canyon.

-- The latest illustration of Trump’s challenge comes with the news that the president early last year directed his then-Chief of Staff, John Kelly, to give his son-in-law Jared Kushner a top-secret security clearance — a move that made Kelly so uncomfortable that he documented the request in writing, according to current and former administration officials.

During an interview in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times asked Trump point blank not once, but twice, whether he ever told Kelly or anyone else in the White House to give Kushner a clearance. “No,” Trump answered. “I don’t think I have the authority to do that. I’m not sure I do.”

Haberman told him that he does, in fact, have the authority. “But I wouldn’t,” Trump said. “I wouldn’t do it. … I was never involved with the security. I know that he — you know, just from reading — I know that there was issues back and forth about security for numerous people, actually. But I don’t want to get involved in that stuff.”

Haberman asked Trump why he would choose not to get involved in his son-in-law’s clearance. “I never thought it was necessary,” he replied. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met any of the national security — of the people that would do clearances.”

Just to make doubly sure, Haberman repeated her original question to the president: “And you didn’t direct General Kelly or anyone like that to do it?”

“No,” Trump said. (Listen to the audio of the interview and read the transcript for yourself.)

-- Last night, Haberman had the lead byline on a deeply sourced Times story that not one, but two, contemporaneous memos exist that undercut Trump’s categorical denials. The Times reports that then-White House counsel Don McGahn also wrote an internal memo, in addition to Kelly’s, outlining the concerns that had been raised about Kushner, including by the CIA. “In May 2018, the White House Counsel’s Office, which at the time was led by Mr. McGahn, recommended to Mr. Trump that Mr. Kushner not be given a clearance at that level. But the next day, Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Kelly to grant it to Mr. Kushner anyway,” according to Haberman, Michael Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Annie Karni.

-- The Washington Post has confirmed the Times’s reporting that the president directed Kelly to give Kushner the top-secret clearance and that Kelly wrote a memo to create a paper trail with his concerns. Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim and Shane Harris report: “After Kushner … and his wife, Ivanka Trump, pressured the president to grant Kushner the long-delayed clearance, Trump instructed Kelly to fix the problem, according to a person familiar with Kelly’s account, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. Kelly told colleagues that the decision to give Kushner top-secret clearance was not supported by career intelligence officials, … according to two people familiar with the memo and the then-chief of staff’s concerns. Kushner’s attorney publicly described the process as one that had gone through normal channels, a description that Kelly did not view as accurate, according to a person familiar with his reaction.”

-- It’s not just the president whose credibility has taken a hit with the latest revelations.

Ivanka Trump was adamant during an interview just a few weeks ago both that her husband received no special treatment and that her father was not involved with him getting his clearance. “Absolutely not,” she told ABC News. “There were anonymous leaks about there being issues, but the president had no involvement pertaining to my clearance or my husband’s clearance. … There weren’t any [problems] other than a backlog that exists of close to a million clearances across government.”

The president’s eldest daughter’s trustworthiness could become an issue as congressional Democrats move toward subpoenaing her to testify about, among other things, her role in the Trump Tower Moscow project during the 2016 campaign.

-- The donnybrook also raises fresh questions about the propriety of Kushner and Ivanka Trump working in the White House at all. A Post poll in April 2017 found that 61 percent of Americans disapproved of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law holding positions in the administration, including 22 percent of Republicans.

-- Trump indeed has the authority to order that his kids and their spouses can get access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets. So why not be forthright about it? Similarly, Trump had the right to pursue a big development deal in Moscow while he was a candidate for president. So why did he deny that he was trying to do business in Russia?

-- It’s part of a pattern: The Post’s Fact Checker team has documented 8,718 false or misleading claims by the president since he took office, as of Feb. 17, his 759th day in office. (Here’s the interactive database.)

-- Congress promises to investigate. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said after the story broke last night that the administration has been stonewalling on his requests for documents related to Kushner’s clearance. “The Committee expects full compliance with its requests as soon as possible, or it may become necessary to consider alternative means to compel compliance,” Cummings said in a statement.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said his staff has been investigating the matter, as well, and will intensify efforts. “There is no nepotism exception for background investigations,” he said last night.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said he plans to introduce legislation to overhaul the clearance process to prevent people like Kushner from being able to get access to the nation’s most important secrets. “Trump's move to overrule security professionals … shows flagrant contempt for longstanding rules and protocols that keep Americans safe,” said Beyer.

-- National security veterans and lawyers who worked in previous administrations expressed alarm that Trump intervened over the objections of career professionals. Here’s a taste of the aghast reaction on social media:

“The ease with which this family lies is astounding and terrifying,” said former FBI special agent and lawyer Asha Rangappa, who now teaches at Yale.

“This is appalling. And it represents a real and concrete threat to the national security of the United States,” said Brookings senior fellow Susan Hennessey, a former attorney in the general counsel’s office at the National Security Agency.

University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House from 2005 to 2007, called it “yet more evidence that [Trump] couldn’t care less about our national security. It’s all about him, his ego and his family.”

“People who have never worked in government may not understand what a big deal this Kushner story is,” said Matt Miller, a Justice Department spokesman during the Obama administration. “Aside from the security risk and the lies, it is such an insult to every public servant who jumps through a million hoops to do things the right way with zero margin for error.”

“Bingo,” replied retired CIA officer John Sipher, who formerly ran the agency’s clandestine operations inside Russia. 

“Nepotism in government puts national security at risk,” said Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics.

“And this order came from a president who could never, ever, ever be approved for a security clearance himself,” said George Conway, the conservative power lawyer who worked for Ken Starr and is married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

“This story reminds me of what an intel official told me over a year ago,” said freelance journalist Yashar Ali. “Some top officials in Trump administration wouldn't qualify to get the security clearance necessary to work in the Starbucks at the CIA headquarters … much less access to intel at the White House.”

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced his candidacy for president this morning with a video highlighting his focus on climate change.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Bryce Harper is leaving the Nationals for a record-setting contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. The 13-year, $330 million agreement includes a no-trade clause and no opt outs, which means the 26-year-old will probably spend the rest of his career with Washington's division rival. (Dave Sheinin and Chelsea Janes)

  2. Some Methodists are considering leaving the church after its leadership voted to affirm the denomination’s opposition to same-sex marriage and gay clergy. Delegates at a St. Louis meeting this week approved harsher penalties for ministers who oversaw weddings for same-sex couples, but they also voted in favor of a plan allowing churches to leave the denomination more easily over the question of sexuality. (Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey)

  3. An undocumented woman from Brazil faces deportation after she allegedly knocked a “Make America Great Again” hat off the head of a man at a Mexican restaurant. The woman, who at first only faced two charges to which she plead not guilty, was detained by ICE agents. (Katie Mettler

  4. Trump's golf resort in Scotland was ordered to pay the Scottish government's legal bills after losing a battle over a wind power development that the president argued would spoil the view from his course. The amount the Trump Organization must pay has not been disclosed. (BBC)

  5. A dozen mature trees were cut down and dumped into the Potomac River from Trump National Golf Course property in Virginia last week, an action that Loudoun County officials say could violate local ordinances covering work on floodplains. (Patricia Sullivan)

  6. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Peru this morning. No word yet on casualties, but there was no tsunami warning. (Reuters)

  7. The California town of Guerneville woke up to massive flooding from the Russian River. The waters from heavy rains are receding at a slower pace than expected. (Mercury News

  8. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to lure Amazon back to New York City after the company said it would no longer be building a campus there. In the last two weeks, the Democrat has been talking extensively with Amazon executives, including Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post. (New York Times)
  9. Richard Plepler resigned as chief executive of HBO. He has worked there since 1992 and oversaw early successes with series like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” But senior executives of WarnerMedia, the newly formed company from the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, wanted new leadership. (Sonia Rao)

  10. HBO will air “Leaving Neverland” this weekend, a two-part documentary detailing allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson. The film focuses on two men, Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, who say that the pop star sexually molested them for years starting in the late 1980s. (Hank Stuever)
  11. Gap and Old Navy are separating into two public companies. Old Navy is now more profitable than Gap, partly due to its more affordable prices and the fact that other fast-fashion retailers have taken over Gap's customers. (Wall Street Journal

  12. An Arizona town issued an official apology to 12-year-old reporter Hilde Lysiak, who was threatened with arrest after recording the town police chief. During a Patagonia town council meeting, Mayor Andrea Wood apologized for “the First Amendment rights violation.” (Tom Jackman)

  13. Musical genius André Previn died at 89. The German American musician began composing for Hollywood at 16. (Tim Page)
  14. Richard Nixon’s brother Edward died at 88. The last surviving brother of the former president was one of his fiercest defenders during Watergate and co-chaired his 1972 reelection campaign. (AP)

  15. A pit bull who was at an airport to allegedly serve as an emotional support animal bit a 5-year-old girl in the face. The girl’s mother has filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against the dog’s owner, Alaska Airlines and the airport, marking the latest in a series of controversies over bad behavior by emotional support animals that has caused headaches for airlines and the federal government. (Meagan Flynn)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Congress is not done with Michael Cohen yet. The president’s former lawyer is due back on Capitol Hill next week. Karoun Demirjian reports: “Cohen is scheduled to complete his testimony with the House Intelligence Committee on March 6. After Cohen, the panel intends to interview more of Trump’s associates, including Trump Organization chief financial officer Alan Weisselberg, with whom the House Oversight Committee also has expressed an interest in speaking. Trump’s former business associate Felix Sater, who played a key role in Trump’s efforts to pursue construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, will appear before the House Intelligence Committee in a public hearing scheduled for March 14.

-- Weisselberg’s name came up at least 30 times during Cohen's public testimony on Wednesday, in connection with alleged schemes to repay hush money, mislead Trump’s investors and lenders, and skirt campaign-finance laws.

-- House Democrats said they will use Cohen’s testimony as a road map to dig deeper into the president’s business and charity. “All you have to do is follow the transcript,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which interviewed Cohen Wednesday. “If there were names that were mentioned, or records that were mentioned during the hearing, we want to take a look at all of that.”

-- "The House Financial Services Committee said it would look into the Donald J. Trump Foundation, Trump’s charity. The Intelligence Committee expressed interest in Cohen’s comments on Russia. And Ways and Means Committee members again discussed the best way to obtain Trump’s tax returns," Rachael Bade and David A. Fahrenthold report. "Cohen's claims could cause legal concerns for the Trump Organization that extend beyond Congress. In New York, for instance, Cohen said he was cooperating with the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan on 'several other issues of investigation.' ... Also, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) is reviewing Cohen's testimony 'to determine if it will impact any ongoing proceeding or investigation that the office is undertaking,' a spokeswoman said. James is already suing Trump over what her office called 'persistently illegal conduct' at the Trump Foundation, which Trump ran for 30 years. " 

-- House Democrats are opening a separate investigation into whether Trump abused his power by attacking the federal judiciary, the Justice Department and the media. Bloomberg News’s Billy House reports: “Topics for the inquiry will include Trump’s public humiliation of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his attacks on actions by the liberal Ninth Circuit Court and his abuse of reporters as ‘dishonest’ and ‘enemies of the people.' … The Judiciary Committee led by Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York will announce the probe in days ... There are plans to hold public hearings with witnesses, but it’s not immediately clear who will be summoned. … The committee will study whether such actions either reflect or blur the Constitution’s separation of powers.”

-- Top Democrats continue to shy away from impeachment talk after Cohen’s testimony. From the Times’ Nicholas Fandos and Carl Hulse: “Democrats on Thursday emphasized their intent to explore and broadcast Mr. Trump’s actions through existing investigations, believing that, lacking startling new evidence, a drawn-out gantlet of inquiries will do more damage to a president seeking re-election than a partisan impeachment that could only roil the country and energize Republicans — a thousand cuts over a swing of the ax. ‘Yes, we have unambiguous evidence that the president has committed a crime at this point, I think,’ [Nadler] said in an interview. ‘Do we have unambiguous evidence he has done impeachable offenses? We’ve got a ways to go yet.’”

-- Two Republican congressmen asked the Justice Department to investigate Cohen for possible perjury. CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Laura Jarrett report: “The criminal referral -- sent by Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the Oversight Committee, and North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows -- outlined several areas of testimony they urged the Justice Department to investigate, including Cohen's claims Wednesday that he did not seek a job in the Trump White House, his denial of committing bank fraud, as well as his assertion that he did not have any reportable contracts with foreign entities.”

-- Three videos from 2012 of Meadows talking about birtherism recirculated after the Cohen hearing. The North Carolina Republican fiercely defended himself when Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said he was using Lynne Patton, a black woman who works for the Trump administration, as a “prop.” Speaking to a tea party group in one clip, Meadows says: "2012 is the time we are going to send Mr. Obama home to Kenya or wherever it is." Meadows also mused about sending Obama "home" in the other videos, Colby Itkowitz reports.

-- Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligent analyst who passed government secrets to WikiLeaks, said she has been subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury. Manning plans to contest the subpoena, which comes three months after prosecutors mistakenly revealed that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been secretly charged. (New York Times)

MORE ON THE NEW CONGRESS:

-- House Democrats exploded in recriminations during a closed-door meeting after moderates bucked the party on procedural votes, with liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez threatening to put anyone who votes with Republicans “on a list” for primary challenges from their left in 2020. Ocasio-Cortez represents a solidly blue district, but many of the new members who delivered the majority come from districts that Trump carried in 2016 and will probably do so again in 2020. One freshman from such a district, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.) — whom I profiled on the eve of the midterm elections — reacted sharply to Ocasio-Cortez’s comments. She stood during the private session to plead with Ocasio-Cortez and the angry liberals to respect the political reality of representing a swing district like hers.

Mike DeBonis has more from inside the room where it happened: “A frustrated Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lashed out at about two dozen moderates and pressured them to get on board. ‘We are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision,’ Pelosi said. … Triggering the blowup were Wednesday’s votes on a bill to expand federal background checks for gun purchases. Twenty-six moderate Democrats joined Republicans in amending the legislation, adding a provision requiring that ICE be notified if an illegal immigrant seeks to purchase a gun. Several are also pushing to reform or eliminate the procedural tactic that has prompted the uproar — the ‘motion to recommit,’ which essentially gives the minority party one final opportunity to amend a bill moments before it comes up for a final vote. …

Pelosi trained much of her closed-door frustrations on veteran lawmakers, noting that some held seats on coveted committees. ‘What is this?’ she asked … Later, when one lawmaker talked about the peril of persistently voting with party leaders on these motions, Pelosi responded that the party stood ready to help team players ... Publicly and privately, Pelosi has urged members to treat the Republican motions as procedural feints that should be routinely ignored. … Republicans, during their past eight-year majority, maintained remarkable discipline on these procedural votes. Democrats did not manage to pass a single one from 2011 through 2018. But Democrats have already lost two this year.”

-- Republican opposition to Trump’s emergency declaration grew even as the president warned those who vote against it they are putting themselves in political jeopardy. Three Republican senators have already said they will vote against it, while Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) have qualms about it. Erica Werner and John Wagner report: “Supporters of the disapproval resolution remained one vote short of the threshold for passage Thursday, since Inhofe said he was still waiting to determine whether and how the military construction funds would be tapped, and Alexander refused to say how he would vote, saying it was a hypothetical question because the White House still has time to pursue a different course of action. … Numerous other GOP senators have also expressed reservations about Trump’s move, among them Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), leading to widespread expectations that the disapproval resolution will pass the Senate, which would be an embarrassing rebuke to Trump.”

-- The House voted to lengthen the background-check window for gun purchases and transfers to at least 10 business days after a heated floor debate in which two members spoke about their own experiences with domestic violence. Felicia Sonmez reports: “The bill aims to close the ‘Charleston loophole,’ a reference to the 2015 killings of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church. The gunman was able to purchase the weapons after a three-day federal background check failed to turn up a prior conviction. … On the House floor on Thursday, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) mentioned her experience as she proposed adding a provision that would allow firearms to be transferred to domestic violence victims after a maximum of three business days. … She then told the story of a woman in New Jersey who was killed by her abuser while waiting for her firearm application to be approved. …

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) rose to urge Democrats to oppose Lesko’s proposal, recounting the details of her experience growing up as the daughter of a domestic abuser. … ‘One night, I kept my father from killing my mother. He shouldn’t have had a gun,’ Dingell said, prompting applause from some in the House chamber. She said she remembered her mother going out to buy a gun — ‘and then all of us were scared to death about her gun and my father’s gun. … We had two guns to worry about. No child, no woman, no man should ever have to go through that.’”

-- Two Republican senators, Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.), said they will not spend political contributions given to them by billionaire John Childs and will instead donate the money to charity after Childs was charged with soliciting prostitution in Florida. Michael Scherer and Michelle Ye Hee Lee report: “The decision could pressure other GOP candidates and groups who have benefited from Childs’ largesse in recent years, including some who have urged Democrats to return their own money from donors accused of sexual misconduct. Childs, 77, has donated about $17 million since 2007 to support conservative politicians and causes, federal records show. … He was one of 165 people charged on Feb. 21 with solicitation of prostitution as part of a six-month sex trafficking investigation of massage parlors in Florida. A clerk at the Indian River County Court said Thursday Childs had not yet answered the warrant.”

HANOI FALLOUT:

-- Trump and Kim Jong Un's advisers offered very different explanations for why negotiations dissolved without a deal in Hanoi. Philip Rucker, Simon Denyer and David Nakamura report: “Trump said the main impediment to a deal was Kim’s requirement that the United States lift all economic sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the closure of only one nuclear facility, which still would have left Pyongyang with a large arsenal of missiles and warheads. But Trump also raised concerns about North Korea’s concealment of parts of its nuclear industry. Hours later, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, offered a slightly different take at a rare news conference, arguing that Kim’s regime sought only ‘partial’ sanctions relief in return for dismantling the North’s main enrichment capabilities for fissile material. Speaking to reporters directly afterward, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, suggested Kim had ‘lost the will to engage in dealmaking’ as the talks unraveled. The United States, she said, was missing a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ and she said no future meetings between the two sides were planned.”

-- With Trump gone, Kim toured Hanoi this morning after meeting with President Nguyen Phu Trong. He will be driven to the Chinese border on Saturday, where he will board a train for a 60-hour ride back to North Korea. (AP)

-- The failure to reach an agreement left Trump without an international accomplishment to tout as his presidency is threatened on the domestic front. Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker report: “The unexpected collapse of talks here was a setback for a president who has invested more than a year in cultivating a friendship with Kim — and holding his tongue on the leader’s record of brutality and human rights abuses — and whose signature foreign policy aim has been his unconventional strategy for denuclearizing North Korea. … The Hanoi summit underscored the limits of Trump’s ability to translate the charisma and hustler instincts that made him a wealthy New York real estate star into the more nuanced realm of international diplomacy.”

-- Republicans expressed cautious criticism of Trump’s confidence that Kim knew nothing of American Otto Warmbier’s mistreatment while imprisoned in North Korea. John Wagner and Seung Min Kim report: “Republican lawmakers were careful not to criticize Trump directly, but several said they took a different view of whether Kim was trustworthy … Speaking as Trump headed home from a two-day summit with Kim in Hanoi, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he continues to see North Korea as ‘an evil regime.’ … Asked if Trump should trust Kim, Portman said, ‘I think he should verify whatever he hears from [Kim] independently.’ Speaking to reporters at a news conference Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also counseled caution on trusting Kim. ‘I do not see the leader of North Korea as somebody who’s a friend,’ McCarthy said. ‘We know what happened to Otto.’”

-- Pelosi mocked Trump for cutting short his meeting with Kim after setting such high expectations. “I guess it took two meetings for him to realize that Kim Jong Un is not on the level,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference. “The prospect for success seemed dim in light of the insincerity of Kim Jong Un.” Citing Trump’s defense of Kim on Warmbier, Pelosi added that it was “wrong” for the president to believe “thugs” like the North Korean leader. (John Wagner)

-- South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised closer ties with North Korea despite the collapse of talks. AP's Kim Tong-Hyung reports: “Moon made a nationalistic call for inter-Korean cooperation, which he says would drive progress in negotiations between the United States and North Korea. Moon said he would 'consult' with the United States on resuming operations at an inter-Korean factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and restarting South Korean tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort. It’s impossible for Seoul to resume the projects under the current U.S.-led sanctions against the North. Moon also proposed the creation of a joint economic committee between the Koreas aimed at developing the North’s crippled economy, which he said would be possible with progress in the North’s denuclearization.”

-- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed a willingness to meet with Kim after the failed summit to resolve the past abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea. From the Nikkei Asían Review’s Tsukasa Hadano: “‘I know that I need to face Chairman Kim myself next,’ Abe said. ‘Japan and the U.S. will continue to cooperate closely toward resolving the abduction, nuclear and missile issues.’ North Korea often makes overtures to Japan when it hits roadblocks with the U.S., hoping that cozying up to an American ally might be a way to break through. Abe is fully aware of this behavioral pattern of the North and now sees an opening after the breakdown of nuclear talks.”

-- “No deal is infinitely preferable to a bad deal. But Trump’s own hubris and inexperience set up the failure in Hanoi,” conservative foreign policy expert Max Boot argues in his column: “Trump would be well advised to return to the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ that he adopted in 2017. Only he can’t. With his two summits, the president has conferred legitimacy on the North Korean tyrant and given China and Russia an excuse to relax sanctions enforcement. Unless Kim is foolish enough to conduct another nuclear or missile test, it is hard to see sanctions returning to where they were in 2017.”

-- Kim’s decision to respond to an American reporter’s question may signal he is trying to engage more in global affairs. David Nakamura, The Post reporter who asked the question prompting Kim’s response, recounts his exchange: “I found myself instinctively trying to bridge a language gap by sending a universal signal — and, perhaps, appear unthreatening to the young leader in his mid-30s who, according to longtime North Korea watchers, had never answered a question from a reporter outside his tightly controlled state media. ‘Chairman Kim, are you confident?’ I asked. He looked at me. … We locked eyes. I raised my thumb. ‘Feeling good about a deal?’ I said. Kim turned his head toward an interpreter seated behind him. She translated my question, and he began speaking in Korean. ‘Well, it’s too early to tell, but I wouldn’t say that I’m pessimistic,’ the interpreter said, channeling Kim. ‘From what I feel right now, I do have a feeling that good results will come out.’”

THE WORLD IS A TINDERBOX:

-- Israel’s attorney general recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on corruption charges, landing a potentially fatal blow against the political career of a man who has led the country for a total of more than 13 years. Ruth Eglash and Loveday Morris report from Jerusalem: “Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit outlined the cases against the prime minister in a 57-page letter sent to Netanyahu’s lawyers. Netanyahu, who has strongly denied the allegations against him, now has the opportunity to present his defense at a hearing before Mandelblit makes a final decision on an indictment. But the recommendation indicates that Israel’s top legal authority believes there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.”

Netanyahu dismissed the allegations — which include charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust connected to three corruption cases — as a left-wing conspiracy. But the announcement could severely hamper Netanyahu’s chances of securing another term in Israel’s April 9 elections: “[I]n recent weeks, as the attorney general’s announcement neared, Netanyahu has slipped to second place in some polls, especially after his two main rivals, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, decided to run on a joint ticket against him. Polls have projected that the indictment announcement could cost Netanyahu’s party another four seats in parliament. Even if he does win, the scandal could make it more difficult for Netanyahu to build the coalition he needs to govern. … Netanyahu has previously said he would not resign if indicted, and his current coalition partners released statements of support on Thursday urging that he be considered innocent until proved guilty.”

-- Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a major army base in Afghanistan overnight, killing a number of Afghan troops as U.S. officials and the Taliban continue peace talks in Qatar. Sayed Salahuddin reports: “Military officials could not confirm the casualty reports, but security sources in Helmand said as many as 20 Afghan security personal may have died. There were no reports of casualties among the U.S. advisory troops who are housed in the same base … A Taliban spokesman immediately claimed the attack. … Taliban and U.S. negotiators in Doha paused Friday after three days of discussions, which both sides described as positive.”

-- A U.N. report said that Israeli security forces may have committed war crimes in connection to the deaths of 189 Palestinian protesters in Gaza last year. Ruth Eglash reports: “The U.N. Commission of Inquiry criticized Israel’s rules of engagement and said the majority of the Palestinians killed ‘did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious injury to others when they were shot.’ The report also noted that thousands of demonstrators have been maimed by Israeli snipers during the weekly protests along the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip. [Netanyahu] rejected the report, saying it ‘set a new record for U.N. hypocrisy’ and was ‘based purely on an obsessive hatred of Israel.’”

-- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced overnight in Manila that any attacks on the Philippines in the South China Sea will result in an American military response. Regine Cabato and Shibani Mahtani report: “Pompeo’s comments seek to reassure the Southeast Asian country at a time when China is increasingly building military outposts on artificial islands it has claimed for its own in the contested waters. China claims it has historic rights to the South China Sea, a crucial waterway where one-third of global trade flows, but its claims overlap with that of several nations in the region, including Vietnam and the Philippines.”

-- The U.S. military would leave Afghanistan within five years under the Pentagon’s plan for a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. The New York Times’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes report: “The rest of the international force in Afghanistan would leave at the same time … The plan is being discussed with European allies and was devised, in part, to appeal to President Trump, who has long expressed skepticism of enduring American roles in wars overseas. … Officials said that even if the peace talks broke down, the United States would go forward with shifting to counterterrorism missions from training Afghan forces. Until the final withdrawal, several thousand American forces would continue strikes against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, including on partnered raids with Afghan commandos. The counterterrorism missions, and the military’s dwindling presence, are also critical to allowing the C.I.A. to operate in Afghanistan.”

-- A silver lining: Pakistan's capture of Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman raised tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries. But his release was a gesture and that's helped cooler heads prevail. Niha Masih reports: “Even as India and Pakistan traded charges over the last two days, Varthaman’s behavior in captivity united people from both sides of the border, mostly in praise. Videos of his capture and questioning were shared by thousands on social media. Pakistani citizens joined the chorus asking their government to return Varthaman as a gesture of peace.”

-- Misinformation shared on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp has fueled tensions and made it harder to calm things down. From CNN’s Ravi Krishnani: “While people on both sides have appealed for peace and sanity, they risk being outshouted by India and Pakistan's internet-savvy ultra-nationalists. … Slogans resounded on social media as a sort of digital chest-thumping: Hashtags such as … #IndiaStrikesBack #TerroristanPakistan … circulated widely on Twitter. With the hashtags came fake videos, unverified pictures, and other false claims that India's most vitriolic digital nationalists could find to suggest their country's upper hand.”

-- And India’s economy, which has been red hot, may slow if the simmering tensions discourage foreign investment and reduce business confidence, per Bloomberg’s Anirban Nag and Vrishti Beniwal.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN AND WOMEN:

-- The Senate narrowly confirmed former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report: “Wheeler, who began his career at EPA during the 1990s but spent years on Capitol Hill before heading to the private sector, has won praise from Republicans for his deregulatory agenda but criticism from Democrats for his refusal to take action on climate change and several public health priorities. He has been running the agency since Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt, stepped down in July … One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted against Wheeler’s confirmation Thursday on the grounds that he had worked to water down federal rules curbing greenhouse gas pollution from power plants, as well as weaken fuel standards for the nation’s cars and pickup trucks.”

-- Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Neomi Rao’s nomination to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit. Ann E. Marimow and Seung Min Kim report: “Two senators — Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) — expressed concern this week about Rao’s judicial philosophy and specifically whether she would expand abortion rights. But Hawley joined other Republicans in backing the nomination after meeting privately with Rao on Wednesday ... Another committee Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), also supported Rao, but with some reluctance, she said, because of controversial columns Rao wrote as a college student about date rape. Ernst disclosed earlier this year that she was raped in college and said she remains concerned about the message Rao’s writing sends to young women.”

-- Justice Clarence Thomas has been maneuvering behind the scenes to whip votes for Rao, his former clerk. He reached out privately to at least two Republican senators, including Hawley and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is often a pivotal vote on judges, Ann E. Marimow and Seung Min Kim report.

-- One of Trump’s closest congressional allies -- now under investigation by the Florida Bar for his tweet about Cohen on the eve of Wednesday's hearing -- is also pushing back against calls to reexamine Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s controversial 2008 plea deal with Jeffrey Epstein, a multimillionaire who has been accused of sexually molesting dozens of girls. The Miami Herald’s Alex Daugherty reports: “[Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.)] said reexamining Acosta’s handling of Epstein’s case, which came under increased scrutiny after the Herald’s three-part series Perversion of Justice, sets a ‘dangerous’ precedent for prosecutors. … Gaetz’s stance is not shared by other South Florida lawmakers, including Republicans. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced Acosta at his confirmation hearing, said he wants to see the results of an investigation into the Justice Department’s internal decision-making process about Epstein’s plea deal before deciding on Acosta’s future.”

-- Republican Roy Moore has signaled interest in a rematch next year against Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), setting off alarm bells among establishment GOP strategists who fear that the sexual assault allegations against Moore could once again cost them the seat. The Washington Examiner’s David M. Drucker reports: “Moore, 72, a former state judge, made the rounds at last Friday’s Alabama Republican Party dinner gala. A few days later, a new political action committee run by Moore’s son, Caleb Moore, issued an email fundraising appeal. … If Moore runs, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, would take action to block him from the nomination. Otherwise, the NRSC plans to stay out of the Alabama primary.”

-- Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, one of the president's biggest donors, has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Nevada Independent reports: “It is unclear whether Adelson, 85, will be able to testify in the civil lawsuit brought by Hong Kong businessman Richard Suen, who has been seeking compensation from the gaming giant since 2004 over the assistance he claims to have provided Adelson and the company in landing a lucrative concession to operate casinos in Macau in the early 2000s. … In court on Feb. 19, Las Vegas attorney Todd Bice suggested that if Adelson is unable to sit for a deposition or offer testimony at the trial – which is scheduled to start Monday – publicly traded Las Vegas Sands should notify the Securities and Exchange Commission of Adelson’s medical issues.”

2020 WATCH:

-- Beto O’Rourke and his team are signaling he is preparing for a presidential run. Matt Viser reports: “A nucleus of advisers in El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown, has been holding strategy meetings — and going on hikes with O’Rourke — as they plan for a nascent campaign. The former congressman has been riding his bicycle to a makeshift office near San Jacinto Plaza, making calls and soliciting advice from Democrats around the country. … An O’Rourke candidacy could add a centrist, upbeat message to a campaign that has been marked by left-leaning policies and sometimes anger, and it could sharpen the question for Democratic voters of which direction they want to go in the age of [Trump]. If O’Rourke jumps in, a move that could come as early as next week, it would answer one of the biggest uncertainties hovering over a turbulent early primary season, leaving former vice president Joe Biden as the most prominent remaining undecided figure.”

-- Trump is pushing to make a debate over climate change a central fight in the 2020 race, despite the scientific consensus on the issue. Juliet Eilperin and Toluse Olorunnipa report: “Trump sees the climate debate as a war of political messaging, according to several current and former administration officials … Convinced that the scientific literature on climate change is funded and directed by liberals, he has said on repeated occasions that he expects the climate to change back to colder average temperatures. … Trump has already begun targeting his potential 2020 opponents over their environmental positions. … Democrats are convinced that Trump’s position on climate change could prove a liability for congressional Republicans, most of whom have raised questions about climate science and worked to reverse Obama-era regulations aimed at curbing carbon emissions.”

-- Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill to legalize marijuana on the federal level, which has already been backed by several of his 2020 competitors. CNBC’s Carmin Chappell reports: “Co-sponsors of the bill, known as the Marijuana Justice Act, include fellow 2020 Democratic contenders Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Booker first introduced the bill in 2017, but it was not taken up for a vote. … Booker's bill would remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, while also providing financial incentives to states to loosen their marijuana laws.”

-- Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D) record of defending the medical device industry, a huge employer in her home state of Minnesota, could complicate the Democrat's image as a champion for consumer safety. The AP reports: “During her time in the Senate, Klobuchar has advanced proposals championed by the medical device industry that some consumer advocates claim would put patients’ safety at risk … Klobuchar has pushed the federal Food and Drug Administration to approve medical devices faster and called for a greater presence of industry-backed experts at the agency. … Language in bills she sponsored to streamline device approvals and increase the influence of industry-recommended experts ultimately ended up in landmark legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama.”

-- Not ready for prime time? Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has had an impressive start to her campaign, but a growing number of Democrats who have watched her speak are worried at the lack of detail provided in policy statements. Politico’s Christopher Cadelago reports: “In interviews, two dozen political strategists, elected officials and Democratic activists and voters — most of whom watched Harris’ events in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — said she’s shown promise as someone who can connect with voters at an emotional level. … But in her early state debuts, Harris has at times compensated for her lack of precision and detailed policy prescriptions by lapsing into prepared remarks, turning to legislation she supports — even when it indirectly relates to the question — and leaning on anecdotes to connect with audiences.”

-- Harris represents the political era in much the same way that another Californian, Ronald Reagan, did, the Los Angeles Times’s Mark Z. Barabak observes in a smart piece: “The state that ushered Reagan to the White House was predominantly white and Republican-leaning, an arsenal of the Cold War and a hotbed of anti-tax fervor. The California that serves as Harris’ national springboard has more brown than white residents, is strongly Democratic, a leader in high-tech innovation and has twice voted in recent years to pay more taxes.”

-- Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) is thinking about running for Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Tex.) seat, his brother Julián Castro revealed. The AP's Michelle L. Price and Paul J. Weber report: "'He’s considering that, but he really has not made a decision about whether he’s going to do that. I would imagine he would make a decision at some point soon,' Julian Castro told the Associated Press during a campaign stop in Nevada. In Texas, no clear rival has yet emerged to take on Cornyn, who until this year was the No. 2 Republican in the Senate before being term-limited out of that leadership role.” 

-- A PAC has used Trump’s voice in robo-calls to raise more than $100,000, even though it is not affiliated with his reelection campaign. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott report: The group behind the calls, Support American Leaders PAC, “is run by 32-year-old Matthew Tunstall, who has a history of managing shadowy groups that target people with politically charged calls in order to raise money while doing very little -- if anything at all -- to put that money toward a political purpose. … The operation effectively amounts to an income cycle of wash, rinse, repeat: paying for ads to raise money to pay for more ads to raise more money and so on, with Tunstall taking home whatever money doesn't get used to pay for more ads. The enterprise may also be breaking spending rules policed by three different federal agencies on impersonation and ad disclosure.”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Back from Vietnam, Trump went off on Cohen in a five-part tweetstorm this morning:

A "Sex and the City" star who ran for governor last year in New York slammed Joe Biden after he praised Mike Pence:

Biden, who is leaning toward running for president, apologized:

An MSNBC analyst suggested that Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) is growing a beard so people stop confusing him with his brother, the former HUD secretary who is running for president:

A retired Post reporter offered perspective on the Cohen hearing:

From a conservative editor at Commentary magazine:

As NRA president Oliver North was cheered at CPAC, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton noted that the right does not treat everyone who has admitted lying under oath to Congress the same way:

From the communications director of C-SPAN:

A writer for the Bulwark, a hot new conservative website, provided more color from the conservative confab:

From a Post reporter:

Trump's former U.N. ambassador highlighted North Korean human rights abuses as Trump returned from Hanoi:

The Iranian foreign minister taunted Trump on Twitter for pulling out of nuclear agreement with Tehran after his failed summit with Kim:

Larry Sabato and his team at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics provided their first look at the 2020 map:

A Vox co-founder scrutinized Beto O'Rourke's polling numbers:

A D.C.-based New York Times reporter reflected on Bryce Harper's move to the Phillies:

And a local pizza chain sought to capitalize on the Internet fame of "Pizza Intern:"

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

-- The Guardian, “Anti-vaxx 'mobs': Doctors face harassment campaigns on Facebook,” by Julia Carrie Wong: “Networks of closed Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members have become staging grounds for campaigns that victims say are intended to silence and intimidate pro-vaccine voices on social media. The harassment only exacerbates an online ecosystem rife with anti-vaccine misinformation, thanks in part to Facebook’s recommendation algorithms and targeted advertising. … The power of harassment campaigns to dissuade pro-vaccine voices from engaging online raises questions about Facebook’s approach to anti-vaccine propaganda. Despite pressure from public health experts and politicians, the company has not banned anti-vaccine misinformation, which it says can be better addressed with accurate counter-speech than with censorship.”

-- BuzzFeed News, “This Woman Performed Her Own Abortion — And Was Lucky To Survive,” by Karla Zabludovsky: “Contraceptives are in short supply in Venezuela, with most pharmacies sold out, so it’s largely up to black marketeers like Beatriz to supply women with them. And despite their exorbitant price tag — on the street, $1 gets you a month’s birth control, but that represents a week’s salary — the pills remain highly sought after. … The number of abortions in Venezuela has grown in recent months, according to workers at family planning clinics and women’s rights advocates. … [Beatriz] had an abortion six years ago, and despite taking all the precautions afterward, found herself pregnant again last November. As soon as she found out, Beatriz worked extra hours to make enough money to buy the pills she would need to carry out an abortion herself. Two weeks later, she was in the emergency room, fighting for her life.”

-- ProPublica, “I’m a Journalist. Apparently, I’m Also One of America’s 'Top Doctors,'" by Marshall Allen: “For reasons still unclear, Top Doctor Awards had chosen me — and I was almost perfectly the wrong person to pick. I’ve spent the last 13 years reporting on health care, a good chunk of it examining how our health care system measures the quality of doctors. Medicine is complex, and there’s no simple way of saying some doctors are better than others. Truly assessing the performance of doctors, from their diagnostic or surgical outcomes to the satisfaction of their patients, is challenging work. And yet, for-profit companies churn out lists of 'Super' or 'Top' or 'Best' physicians all the time, displaying them in magazine ads, online listings or via shiny plaques or promotional videos the companies produce for an added fee.” 

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Former Maine Governor: Bypassing Electoral College Would Silence ‘White People,’” from HuffPost: “Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) bashed proposed legislation in Maine that would circumvent the Electoral College during a presidential election, claiming this week that such a move would effectively silence ‘white people.’ LePage, who came under fire in 2016 for suggesting people of color in Maine were ‘the enemy,’ warned that ‘minorities’ would have more control if more bills meant to ensure the president is elected by the national popular vote are passed. ‘Actually what would happen if they do what they say they’re gonna do is white people will not have anything to say,’ LePage told WVOM FM’s ‘George Hale Ric Tyler Show’ on Tuesday. ‘It’s only going to be the minorities that would elect. It would be California, Texas, Florida.’”

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Conservative critics accuse Ilhan Omar of new anti-Semitic attack, this time focusing on 'dual loyalties,’” from Fox News: “Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose previous comments on Israel were condemned as anti-Semitic just weeks ago by senior members of her own party, is again under fire for suggesting Wednesday night that some politicians in Washington are ‘pushing for allegiance’ to Israel. … ‘I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,’ Omar said to applause. ‘I want to ask why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or big pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying movement that is influencing policy.’”

 

DAYBOOK:

Trump has no events on his public schedule.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

The RNC chairwoman falsely claimed at CPAC that the Internet was not created by the government: “Are we going to want capitalism? Look at all the great achievements of our country: flight, cars, the Internet. Sorry, Al Gore. The Internet. None of that came from government. It came from innovation. It came from the greatness of America.”

Philip Bump explains: “[A]s Scientific American wrote in 2012, the Internet itself derived directly from government work. It began as ARPAnet — named for the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. … Certainly there were innovations that stemmed from the private sector — many innovations, and important ones. But saying that the Internet didn’t come from government is simply wrong.”

 

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

-- It will be a cloudy, sloppy day with snow in the morning and dampness in the evening. The Capital Weather Gang reports: “Frozen precipitation in the area this morning is tapering in the hours ahead, and we’ll all be left with periodic drizzle and perhaps more rain tonight. There should be a quick chance to dry out before more precipitation falls again, later Sunday into Sunday night. Next week — and perhaps March overall: kind of chilly.”

-- The Maryland House voted to censure Del. Mary Ann Lisanti for using a racial slur as she resists calls to step down. Arelis R. Hernández and Ovetta Wiggins report: “The censure is the first imposed by the House in decades … Lisanti, one of only a few elected Democrats in mostly white Harford County, told reporters after the vote that she plans to stay in office and work to regain the trust of her constituents and fellow lawmakers. But she also struck a defiant tone, saying that her colleagues who ‘heard or thought they overhead an inappropriate word’ should have filed an ethics complaint against her instead of speaking to reporters. … If Lisanti were to resign, the Harford County Democratic Central Committee would recommend a replacement for her to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who would be charged with appointing someone to fill the seat.”

-- Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) endorsed D.C. statehood, leaving Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as the region’s only Democratic federal lawmaker who hasn’t. Jenna Portnoy and Fenit Nirappil report: “Warner, who is up for reelection next year, was a longtime holdout whose turnaround Wednesday has given statehood activists a boost. Warner said he changed his mind after realizing that an increasing number of D.C. residents commute for work to Virginia. He previously had been worried that as a state, Washington could impose a commuter tax on Virginians driving into the nation’s capital for jobs.”

-- The Metro board voted to maintain the transit system’s current operating hours. Some D.C. officials had pushed for a return to late-night service, but Metro management argued the system is still catching up on a backlog of maintenance issues. (Faiz Siddiqui)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Trevor Noah explains why Trump's relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes sense: 

Seth Meyers reviewed what he called one of the most eventful weeks in the Trump presidency: 

Jimmy Kimmel lamented that Trump came back from Hanoi “tiny-empty handed”:

Kimmel’s sidekick Guillermo took a drive with a GPS guided by Trump’s directions:

Jimmy Fallon, meanwhile, joked that Kim went back home by taking all the balloons from the summit and using them to fly home, “like the kid from 'Up'”: