With Joanie Greve and Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: President Trump’s got 99 problems, and his businesses are causing many of them.

The president’s private business holdings, which he refused to divest when he took office, are causing growing political headaches – leading to festering questions about conflicts of interest and fresh charges of hypocrisy and creating fertile ground for newly empowered congressional investigators who have subpoena power.

Four new stories highlight the diverse array of challenges that Trump’s businesses pose as he seeks reelection in 2020:

1) Immigration

The Washington Post has now interviewed 33 immigrants who lacked legal status when they worked for the president’s clubs, highlighting Trump’s long reliance on low-wage immigrants who are not authorized to be in the United States and underscoring anew the degree to which he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Juan Quintero is the latest former Trump employee to tell his remarkable story on the record. He spent eight hours each weekday as a groundskeeper at the Trump National Golf Club Hudson Valley in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. Then, as a contractor, he would put in five additional hours as the caretaker of a 171-acre hunting retreat that serves as a private weekend getaway for the president’s sons.

Quintero, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was fired in January after revelations about the Trump Organization’s extensive use of illegal labor prompted the company to conduct an audit. He shared his text messages with Eric Trump, which show the president’s son was closely monitoring his work. (The number matches his personal cellphone. He was saved in the contacts as “Erik Boss.”)

“His work at the shooting range deepens questions about what measures the Trump family and its businesses have taken to prevent the hiring of workers the president casts as invaders and criminals,” Josh Partlow, Nick Miroff and Dave Fahrenthold report. “Quintero said he never directly told Eric Trump about his immigration status. But he said he remained employed by the hunting lodge for more than a year after not providing the owners with a Social Security number when they sought to issue him a debit card. Quintero and other former Trump workers said they believe that their supervisors knew they lacked legal status.”

Gabriel Sedano, a maintenance worker from Mexico, said in January that he had a set of keys for a home that Eric Trump used at the Trump course in Westchester County, N.Y. My colleagues have previously reported that the Trump Organization employed immigrant workers without legal status at five golf courses in New York and New Jersey. The president’s club in Bedminster, N.J., was built and maintained by dozens of laborers from Costa Rica and other Latin American countries. The New York Times published a story in December about two immigrant housekeepers who worked at that club without proper papers.

“In January, the Trump Organization announced that it would expand the use of the government’s E-Verify program to screen new hires at all of its U.S. properties,” Josh, Nick and Dave note. “The company had not widely used the tool, despite a claim to the contrary by Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.”

2) Cronyism and conflicts of interest

There is a pattern of dues-paying members of Trump’s private clubs getting special access to the president that ordinary people could only dream of.

The latest illustration comes from ProPublica, which yesterday published a letter on Mar-a-Lago stationery that Trump directed an aide to pass along to then-Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Trump had run into Albert Hazzouri, a cosmetic dentist from Pennsylvania who is a member of the club, during a 2017 visit to the members-only club he owns in Palm Beach, Fla. Hazzouri later provided the president a handwritten note, in which he refers to Trump as “King.” The president then scrawled that it should be passed onto the VA, which it was.

“In a telephone interview, Hazzouri said he sent the note as a favor to the 163,000-member American Dental Association. He said he had only the vaguest sense of what proposal he was vouching for,” Isaac Arnsdorf reports. “Michael Graham, who heads the ADA's lobbying arm in Washington, recalled that one of his staffers raised the topic with Hazzouri, but Graham said he didn’t know the details. In general, Graham said, the organization wants the government to pay for more dental services.”

ProPublica also reported last year that Trump handed sweeping influence over the VA to Ike Perlmutter, another member of Mar-a-Lago and a big donor to his campaign, along with a physician and a lawyer who regularly visit the president’s resort. “The trio, known as the ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd,’ acted as a shadow leadership for the department, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions, including budgeting and contracting,” Arnsdorf notes. “The House veterans committee is now investigating the trio’s ‘alleged improper influence.’”

3) More congressional investigations

Fueled by leads and names provided to them by former Trump Organization senior executive Michael Cohen, House Democrats are preparing to perform a veritable colonoscopy of the president’s businesses. The president’s tax returns, which they are pursuing, could offer a road map.

Many senior House Democrats are reluctant to scrutinize Trump's oldest children too closely because they believe it’s bad optics and could backfire politically. They would prefer to leave that to federal prosecutors. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be spared. “Yet Trump’s family members — including Donald Jr., Eric, Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner — are so deeply involved in his business and presidency that it likely would be impossible to take a completely hands-off approach,” Politico’s Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan report. Don Jr. is of special interest to some Democrats “given Cohen’s characterizations of the president’s eldest son’s alleged involvement in hush-money payments and other incidents that are central to ongoing federal inquiries.”

“Don Jr. is right in the middle of all of this. … He’s like everywhere. And certainly in that case I think he would be fair game for questions,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the Oversight and Intelligence committees, told Politico. “In his case, he is a material witness.”

4) Environmental stewardship

A county in Virginia announced yesterday it has fined the Trump National Golf Club for improperly chopping down trees along the Potomac River. “The cutting and disposal of a dozen mature trees … nearly two weeks ago … violated Loudoun County’s zoning ordinance … and could cost the organization at least $600,” Patricia Sullivan reports. “The downed trees were spotted Feb. 23 by Steven McKone, director of the Calleva River School, as he kayaked the river. Subsequent paddlers and boaters saw about a dozen stumps 14 to 24 inches in width, and large tree trunks in the Potomac. The removal of the trees from a flood plain along the river requires a permit, which the golf course did not obtain, county officials said … The county ordered the golf course to stop all activity in the flood plain until it obtains the necessary permits.

“Trees in a waterway can create dangerous conditions,” Pat notes. “Currents can pull watercraft into the branches, then trap boaters underwater. In addition, trees along riverbanks are among the best ways to protect water quality and aquatic life and prevent erosion, environmental advocates say. In 2010, the Trump club cut more than 400 trees from its property when it renovated its courses. Nine months later, Donald Trump told a Washington Post reporter that the tree removal was done to create a better view.”

The Daily 202's BIG IDEA> Get James' insight into Washington every weekday on your smart speaker or favorite podcast player.
Subscribe on Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and other podcast players.
 
Welcome to the Daily 202, PowerPost's morning briefing for decision-makers.
Sign up to receive the newsletter.

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. Federal prosecutors finalized a deal that would undo the criminal charges against former congressman Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), who was accused of misspending campaign and government money for his personal benefit. The 37-year-old conceded as part of the deferred prosecution agreement that he had done some wrong and agreed to pay taxes he skipped and reimburse his campaign committees nearly $68,000. But the case that once threatened to put Schock in prison almost certainly will end without him being convicted — marking a stunning reversal for the government. (Matt Zapotosky)
  2. A campaign donor close to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was allowed to sit in on interviews conducted as part of an investigation into whether Hawley illegally used government resources to aid his campaign. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft (R) announced last week that his investigation found no evidence that Hawley violated election law. (Kansas City Star)
  3. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social network will pivot toward encryption and privacy. Zuckerberg outlined in a blog post how Facebook would spend the next several years reframing its platform as a tool for posting content that would be shared with small groups of people and disappear after a short period. (Elizabeth Dwoskin)
  4. “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek announced he has been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Trebek, who has hosted the daily game show since 1984, said he was going to “fight this” and continue to work despite the difficult prognosis. (Sonia Rao)
  5. More than 300 health-care experts signed a letter saying that the Centers for Disease Control and Protection's guidelines on opioid use are harming patients who suffer from long-term pain. The experts said those who benefit from the prescription narcotics have tried to illegally obtain drugs and have even committed suicide in some cases. (Lenny Bernstein)
  6. Thailand’s constitutional court disbanded a political party that nominated the king’s elder sister, Princess Ubolratana, as its candidate for prime minister. The court argued the party broke a long-standing tradition in which the palace is above politics. (Paritta Wangkiat and Shibani Mahtani)
  7. The U.S. just had its wettest winter on record. The average precipitation across the country in the past three months was 9.01 inches, 2.2 inches above normal. (Jason Samenow)
  8. Extreme gusts of wind, as strong as 115 mph, rattled a Bahamas-bound cruise ship. Several passengers and crew were injured. (Matthew Cappucci)
  9. LeBron James just passed his hero Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. James has now scored 32,311 points, landing him in fourth place. (Ben Golliver and Armand Emamdjomeh)
  10. The Golden State Warriors are preparing to move into a new stadium in San Francisco for next season. The billion-dollar complex will be the first privately financed modern sports arena. Its costs will be partially offset by renting space to offices, retail businesses and restaurants. (Ben Golliver)
  11. Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 book “One Hundred Years of Solitude” will be made into a Netflix series. The author, who died in 2014, had doubted his mythical story could be adapted properly. (AP)
  12. A German gardener who died last week is being linked to booby traps that so far have killed one and injured two. Police are warning those who might have had a fraught relationship with the man to call authorities if they think he might have buried an explosive in their yards. (Michael Brice-Saddler)

THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:

-- Michael Cohen directed his former legal team to seek a pardon from the president's lawyers, his current attorney said last night. Cohen had said during public testimony before lawmakers last week that he “never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from President Trump.” Karoun Demirjian and Robert Costa report: “Cohen’s lawyer Lanny J. Davis said in an interview that Cohen directed his former attorney, Stephen Ryan, to contact Trump’s representatives after they 'dangled' the possibility of pardons 'in their public statements.' Davis did not specify which public statements swayed Cohen, saying only that the outreach took place before federal law enforcement raided Cohen’s home and office in April 2018.” 

The Post was unable to reach Ryan late last night. Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, wouldn't confirm whether he had this conversation with Cohen's attorneys. But Giuliani might not be the only lawyer with whom Cohen discussed pardons: “Cohen told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that he also spoke about a pardon with Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow, according to four people familiar with his statements ... Sekulow flatly denied Cohen’s allegation, calling it 'not true' — and declining to elaborate further. ...

“Cohen gave the House Intelligence Committee documents that purportedly illustrate how the president’s lawyers edited his 2017 statements to Congress. ... The committee has not made those documents public. According to people familiar with what’s contained in the documents, the changes were plentiful — indicating Trump’s legal team had been apprised of what Cohen planned to tell lawmakers in 2017.”

-- Two New York attorneys who claimed to be connected to Giuliani approached Cohen in the weeks following the raid of his Manhattan office in what seems to be an attempt to keep him on the president’s side, per ABC News’s Eliana Larramendia, James Hill and Lauren Pearle: “The sources familiar with the contacts said the two lawyers first reached out to Cohen late in April of last year and that the discussions continued for about two months. The attorneys, who have no known formal ties to the White House, urged Cohen not to leave the joint defense agreement ... and also offered a Plan B. In the event Cohen opted to exit the agreement, they could join his legal team and act as a conduit between Cohen and the president’s lawyers. At one point in the discussions, one of the attorneys sent Cohen a phone screenshot to prove they were in touch with Giuliani.”

-- The Department of Justice appointed a prosecutor who has been working on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team to lead a foreign influence unit that will investigate unregistered foreign agents. CNN’s Erica Orden reports: Brandon Van Grack’s “appointment to the newly created position and the Justice Department's interest in expanding its pursuit of foreign influence cases stemmed largely from the impact of Russian operations on the 2016 presidential election, John Demers, the head of the national security division, said Wednesday at a conference on white-collar crime. … Demers added that the Justice Department is considering seeking congressional authorization for administrative subpoena power to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which it currently lacks.”

-- A New York federal appeals court is considering unsealing confidential files that could reveal evidence of an underage sex trafficking operation allegedly run by multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein and British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell. Epstein was given an unusually lenient plea deal by then-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, who is now the secretary of labor. The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown reports: “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reserved judgment in the case, but the panel suggested it was leaning toward the release to the public of vast portions of the court record. The file on the case, which was settled in 2017, contains more than 1,000 documents, lawyers said during oral arguments led by the Miami Herald, which seeks to open the entire file."

THE IMMIGRATION WARS:

-- “A Homeland Security source” leaked documents to the NBC affiliate in San Diego showing that the U.S. government created a secret database of activists, journalists and lawyers who were tied to the migrant caravan and, in some cases, placed alerts on their passports, keeping at least three photojournalists and a lawyer from entering Mexico to work: “As the migrant caravan reached the San Ysidro Port of Entry in south San Diego County, so did journalists, attorneys, and advocates who were there to work and witness the events unfolding. But in the months that followed, journalists who covered the caravan, as well as those who offered assistance to caravan members, said they felt they had become targets of intense inspections and scrutiny by border officials. … Their fears weren’t baseless. … The intelligence gathering efforts were done under the umbrella of ‘Operation Secure Line,’ the operation designated to monitor the migrant caravan ... The documents list people who officials think should be targeted for screening at the border. The individuals listed include ten journalists, seven of whom are U.S. citizens, a U.S. attorney, and 47 people from the U.S. and other countries, labeled as organizers, instigators or their roles ‘unknown.’ The target list includes advocates from organizations like Border Angels and Pueblo Sin Fronteras.”

-- Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross broke several laws and violated the Constitution when he added a citizenship question to the 2020 Census in “bad faith,” a second federal judge ruled yesterday. Fred Barbash reports: “In finding a breach of the Constitution’s enumeration clause, which requires a census every 10 years to determine each state’s representation in Congress, the 126-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco went further than a similar decision on Jan. 15 by Judge Jesse Furman in New York. … Unable to find any expert in the Census Bureau who approved of his plan to add the citizenship question, Seeborg wrote, Ross engaged in a ‘cynical search to find some reason, any reason’ to justify the decision. … He was fully aware that the question would produce a census undercount, particularly among Latinos, the judge said. …

Seeborg, like Furman, found after a trial that Ross misrepresented both to the public and Congress his reasons for adding the citizenship question last March. Ross claimed he was acting at the request of the Justice Department in the interest of enforcing the Voting Rights Act. In reality, the ‘evidence establishes’ that the voting rights explanation was just ‘a pretext’ and that Ross ‘acted in bad faith’ when he claimed otherwise.”

-- The Census Bureau is quietly collecting information about the legal status of millions of immigrants as the Supreme Court decides whether the Trump administration is allowed to ask people if they are U.S. citizens in the 2020 Census. From the AP’s Garance Burke and Frank Bajak: “Under a proposed plan, the Department of Homeland Security would provide the Census Bureau with a broad swath of personal data about noncitizens, including their immigration status ... The data that Homeland Security would share with Census officials would include noncitizens’ full names and addresses, birth dates and places, as well as Social Security numbers and highly sensitive alien registration numbers, according to a document signed by the Census Bureau and obtained by AP.”

-- The U.S. Army mishandled the sensitive personnel information of hundreds of immigrant recruits, leaving them extremely vulnerable to severe punishment in their home countries. Alex Horton reports: “A spreadsheet intended for internal coordination among recruiters was accidentally sent to recruits and contained names, full Social Security numbers and enlistment dates. The list was sent out inadvertently at least three times between July 2017 and January 2018. The breach prompted at least a dozen asylum claims amid concern that if the list were intercepted and recruits are forced to return to autocratic nations such as China or Russia, their enlistments would be harnessed to punish recruits or their families with jail time, harsh interrogations or worse, said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a former human rights official in the State Department under President Barack Obama.”

-- Border agents have been ordered to explicitly target Spanish speakers and migrants from Latin America when carrying out a Trump administration program requiring asylum seekers to wait in Mexico. From the AP’s Elliot Spagat: “The guidance includes instruction about various groups of immigrants who are not to be sent back to Mexico and instead go through the traditional asylum process in the U.S. immigration court system. They include pregnant women, LGBT migrants and people suffering medical issues. Authorities said previously that Mexican asylum seekers are excluded, as are children traveling alone. … Critics pointed out that the guidelines and exclusions are written in a way that make the program almost entirely focused on Central Americans. Judy Rabinovitz, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the criteria ‘does smack of the same concerns we had in the Muslim ban.’”

-- Former White House chief of staff and homeland security secretary John Kelly said he disagreed with some of the Trump administration’s policies, particularly on immigration, during an appearance at Duke University. From NBC News’s Carol E. Lee:  

  • Kelly declined to defend Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency to get funding for a border wall. “We don’t need a wall from sea to shining sea,” he said.  
  • Contradicting Trump, Kelly said undocumented immigrants are “overwhelmingly not criminals.” “They’re people coming up here for economic purposes. I don’t blame them for that,” he said.
  • Kelly declined to talk about the process behind the granting of security clearances to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, but didn't deny reports that the president circumvented the usual process or that Kelly later wrote a memo outlining his concerns about it. He said he believes any such conversations with the president would be protected by privilege.

-- Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified on the Hill that the U.S. is on track to detain more than 900,000 migrants at the southern border by the end of this fiscal year. Maria Sacchetti reports: “After a major spike in border crossings last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is on track to detain far more than the 521,000 taken into custody in fiscal 2018, she said. That would require sustained border crossings at rates unseen in more than a decade. … She called the mass migration of Central American families arriving in cold, remote border outposts a ‘humanitarian catastrophe.’ ‘This is a legitimate national emergency,’ she said before the Homeland Security Committee.”

-- During the hearing, Nielsen insisted that children who were separated from their parents had not been held in “cages.” Aaron Blake reports: “In an exchange with Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), he brought up the 'cages,' and Nielsen took exception. 'Sir, we don’t use cages for children,' Nielsen said. She drew a small box with her arms to suggest only a much-smaller enclosure would qualify. 'Sir, they’re not cages.' Thompson asked what they were, and Nielsen said they were 'areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they’re being processed.' Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) followed up later and asked Nielsen to explain further. 'What is a chain-link fence, enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor represent to you?' she asked. 'Is that a cage?' 'It’s a detention space, as you know, that has existed for decades,' Nielsen said, adding: 'It’s larger. It has facilities. There are places to sit, to stand, to lay down.' 'So does my dog’s cage,' Watson Coleman responded."

    DEMOCRATS IN DISARRAY:

    -- House Democrats argued bitterly during a closed-door meeting yesterday over whether to rebuke Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for alleged anti-Semitic remarks. Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade report: “Omar suggested last week that Israel’s supporters have an ‘allegiance to a foreign country’ … Her defenders argued that leadership was applying a double standard in singling out one of the two Muslim women in Congress. … The session quickly became rancorous. … Plans for a quick vote appeared to fade amid the uproar. Democratic leaders openly fretted that the divisions would overshadow their legislative agenda, especially a planned Friday vote on a major campaign and ethics reform bill.”

    • Multiple House members stood up to challenge the decision — endorsed by [Nancy] Pelosi and the rest of the House Democratic leadership — to move forward with a resolution condemning religious hatred. Initially the measure targeted only anti-Semitism, with some Democrats pushing for a direct rebuke of Omar, but by Tuesday night — facing backlash from members not on board with the plan — leaders decided to expand it to include anti-Muslim bias.”  
    • But other lawmakers, including a group of Jewish members who pushed to pass the resolution focused on anti-Semitism, remain convinced that the House needs to act in response to Omar’s remarks.”
    • For Democrats, the internal divide … has been exacerbated by members targeting each other on Twitter. … On Tuesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) knocked Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) on Twitter for saying that questioning the U.S.-Israel relationship should be out of bounds. … At one point during the meeting, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close Pelosi ally, pleaded with Democrats: ‘Everyone stop tweeting!’”
    • Later Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus met to discuss how to handle the issue, but the group’s chair, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), said it would not take an official position on a response to Omar. ‘People within the caucus are kind of all over the map,’ she said. ‘There are some people that feel, ‘Why are we doing a resolution?’ Some people, they want to see what it actually says, and there are some people that feel good about what they are hearing.’”

    -- The brouhaha is testing Pelosi’s ability to unify her caucus as it faces multiplying battles against Trump. Paul Kane reports: “Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) need to end the tension over Omar to build trust for the legislative battles ahead, or else the individuals involved will almost certainly feel aggrieved and take out their anger on more prominent issues. … As Pelosi entered the closed-door meeting, she admonished the media for fixating on the Omar controversy. ‘The press loves to foment unease in the Democratic Party but we are very united,’ she told reporters.”

    -- Pelosi told reporters yesterday that she does not think Omar’s comments were “intentionally anti-Semitic.”

    -- Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) all raised concerns about the House’s response to Omar. The three presidential candidates condemned anti-Semitism but said there should be more discussion regarding the U.S. and Israel and argued that the way Omar was being thrust into the spotlight puts her at risk. (Politico)

    THE NEW WORLD ORDER: 

    -- The Trump administration revoked part of an Obama-era executive order mandating an annual accounting of how many civilians died in military and CIA strikes. Missy Ryan reports: “The State Department said the report was redundant because Congress had subsequently passed legislation requiring the Defense Department to provide a separate, more exhaustive annual report on civilian casualties resulting from military activities. … Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said there was ‘simply no justification’ for the move. He said he would seek to make such reporting mandatory through an annual intelligence bill.”

    -- American- and British-made bombs may have killed or injured nearly 1,000 civilians in Yemen’s four-year conflict, according to a report released by human rights groups. Sudarsan Raghavan report: “The airstrikes killed 203 people and injured at least 749, the report found. At least 122 children and 56 women were among the dead and wounded. … The United States, in particular, has sold billions of dollars in weaponry to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its key allies in the Middle East. Both nations lead a regional coalition that seeks to oust northern rebels known as Houthis and restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government.”

    -- Venezuelan authorities have deported the German ambassador and a detained U.S. journalist after raiding his home, as President Nicolás Maduro struggles to maintain control of the nation. Rachelle Krygier and Mary Beth Sheridan report: “The ambassador, Daniel Kriener, had been among a group of U.S., Latin American and European diplomats who greeted opposition leader Juan Guaidó at Caracas’s airport on Monday as he returned to the country after a 10-day trip abroad, defying warnings he might be arrested. … Earlier Wednesday, military counterintelligence forces raided the Caracas home of U.S. journalist Cody Weddle and took the Virginia native into custody. They also seized Weddle’s assistant, Venezuelan journalist Carlos Camacho. Weddle and Camacho were released Wednesday evening, and the American journalist was deported.”

    -- Staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh said they were shut out of meetings between Jared Kushner and Saudi Arabia’s royal court last week. From the Daily Beast’s Erin Banco: Kushner “met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman to discuss U.S.-Saudi cooperation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and economic investment in the region, according to the White House. But no one from the embassy in Riyadh was in the meetings, according to two sources. The State Department did have a senior official in attendance, but he was not part of the State Department team in Saudi. He is a senior member of the department focused on Iran.”

    -- Trump is covering for MBS over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, The Post’s Editorial Board writes, and the Senate must push harder for accountability: “In his zeal to cover for [MBS], who the CIA concluded ordered Khashoggi’s murder, President Trump is defying Congress’s authority under the Global Magnitsky Act, which provides for U.S. action in cases of gross human rights abuses. The law allows legislators to require a finding by the president in specific cases ... The Senate’s view is already clear: It unanimously approved a resolution in December holding the crown prince responsible. Now the question is whether the Senate will act to uphold its authority under the law and prevent the Saudi ruler from escaping accountability for the gruesome murder and dismemberment of a journalist who was a Virginia resident and a contributor to The Post.”

    -- According to the U.N., 14 Palestinians have been injured and one has been killed in the West Bank as attacks by Israeli settlers are on the rise. Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash report: “Israeli monitoring groups say the surge in settler violence, in part, reflects a lack of Israeli law enforcement and a response to a rash of particularly distressing attacks by Palestinians against Israelis. While the number of Palestinian attacks in the West Bank dropped last year, their severity appeared to increase.”

    -- Huawei is suing the U.S. government to challenge a law banning federal agencies from buying its equipment. The suit alleges that the government is unfairly punishing the Chinese company without providing proof that it posed an espionage threat to the country. (Gerry Shih)

    -- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted a sexually explicit video of a man at a street party during the country’s Carnival celebrations in an attempt to condemn how “vulgar” the event has become. Instead, his judgment in showing the graphic video sparked outrage from supporters and critics. Marina Lopes reports: “The backlash was swift against Bolsonaro, who has enjoyed considerable support from the country’s right wing, including evangelicals. Several users reported Bolsonaro to Twitter, which prohibits the publication of videos depicting sexual acts. Some users went so far as to demand that the president be impeached for violating a Brazilian law prohibiting officials from ‘acting in a way that is incompatible with the dignity, honor, and decorum of the office.’”

    2020 WATCH:

    -- The Democratic National Committee announced it would not air any of its 2020 primary debates on Fox News, citing the New Yorker report on the network’s close ties to Trump. “I believe that a key pathway to victory is to continue to expand our electorate and reach all voters,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement. “That is why I have made it a priority to talk to a broad array of potential media partners, including Fox News. Recent reporting in the New Yorker on the inappropriate relationship between President Trump, his administration and Fox News has led me to conclude that the network is not in a position to host a fair and neutral debate for our candidates. Therefore, Fox News will not serve as a media partner for the 2020 Democratic primary debates.”

    Paul Farhi notes: “Winning the exclusive rights to televise the 12 candidate debates is considered a prestigious prize in the television business. The debates typically draw large audiences — the first Republican debate in August 2015 attracted a record 24 million viewers — and are a vehicle for promoting the networks’ news programs. Numerous networks, including Fox, have submitted proposals to the DNC to televise one of the 12 scheduled debates, which will start in June. So far, the organization has only awarded rights to the first two — to NBC (along with sister networks MSNBC and Telemundo) and to CNN.”

    -- Andrew Yang, a little-known Democratic candidate for president, has managed to get 47,000 individual donors. If he reaches 65,000 in the next two months, he will make an appearance in the first primary debate. From the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein and Will Sommer: “He's already met one threshold—that his campaign have a minimum of 200 donors per state in at least 20 states. And his team says he’s a lock to clear the other. ‘100 percent. Hell will have to freeze over at this rate for us not to,’ said Zach Graumann, Yang’s campaign manager. ‘We are averaging 1,500 donors a day. Not averaging, that is our baseline. And people don’t even know who he is yet.’ … Getting on the debate stage would be a huge coup for Yang, an entrepreneur who is little known outside of tech circles.”

    -- Taylor Swift plans to get much more involved in politics in 2020. Her endorsement of Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen didn’t help him get over the top in Tennessee last year, but the pop icon isn’t deterred. With her 30th birthday coming up, she’s written an introspective first-person piece for Elle Magazine about 30 lessons she’s learned in life so far. This jumps out: “I learned how to make some easy cocktails like Pimm’s cups, Aperol spritzes, Old-Fashioneds, and Mojitos because…2016,” Swift writes. “I’m finding my voice in terms of politics. I took a lot of time educating myself on the political system and the branches of government that are signing off on bills that affect our day-to-day life. I saw so many issues that put our most vulnerable citizens at risk, and felt like I had to speak up to try and help make a change. Only as someone approaching 30 did I feel informed enough to speak about it to my 114 million followers. Invoking racism and provoking fear through thinly veiled messaging is not what I want from our leaders, and I realized that it actually is my responsibility to use my influence against that disgusting rhetoric. I’m going to do more to help. We have a big race coming up next year.”

    -- Joe Biden has brought on the president of the Latino Victory Fund to aid his likely presidential campaign. Cristóbal Alex, who served as Hillary Clinton’s national deputy director of voter outreach and mobilization in 2016, tweeted about his departure from the liberal group but did not specify what role he would take on next. “I am committed to doing everything in my power to defeat him, and my next steps will reflect that,” he wrote. (Politico)

    -- Biden’s potential presidential campaign is already taking shape, and Democrats are impatient. The former vice president’s advisers have begun offering campaign positions to strategists and are eyeing setting their headquarters in Delaware or Philadelphia for a possible April launch date. The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report: “Biden has also been privately reaching out to a range of influential Democrats, including party donors, members of Congress and allies in the early primary states, to gauge their support. … Still, in conversations over the phone and strategy sessions in his rented Northern Virginia home … Biden has acknowledged that he is uncertain about his place in the 2020 Democratic primary. He is also uneasy about potential attacks from rivals on his family, aides and advisers say … Prominent Democrats from the early nominating states say Mr. Biden must move soon. ‘He has a lot of good will in this state,’ said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a longtime South Carolina lawmaker. ‘But if he’s going to get in he needs to get in. I think the window is closing.’”

    -- Bernie Sanders plans to maintain his 2016 campaign promise to not air “personal attack ads.” BuzzFeed News’s Ruby Cramer reports: “When the Vermont senator jumped in the last Democratic primary in May 2015, during a press conference in Washington, he told reporters he'd ‘never’ run a negative ad in his career. … Still, in the statement provided Wednesday, the Sanders campaign indicated an openness to ads that ‘discuss differences he has on the issues.’ Asked if Sanders would renounce negative ads across the board as he had in his last campaign, an aide referred again to the statement.”

    -- The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA released a report on its 2020 targets that placed historically red states such as Arizona and Georgia ahead of the traditional bellwether state of Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Seth A. Richardson reports: “The Buckeye State is also notably absent from the super PAC’s $100 million early engagement program planned for Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. A second phase without a dollar amount attached will include Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and New Hampshire.” The group’s spokesman added that he still thinks Ohio is “winnable” for a Democrat. “What we think that means is if Ohio is in play, we’ll have already won the easier states and have 270 electoral votes,” he said.

    -- Polling has shown that Democrats and Republicans have radically different opinions and definitions of socialism. Younger people and Democrats are more likely to have a positive view of socialism, for example. But, as Democratic strategist Mark Mellman writes for the Hill, “uncertainty also comes into play. Asked by Gallup to define socialism, the largest number of respondents —  about a quarter of both Democrats and Republicans — said it meant equality. Another 13 percent of Democrats, but only 7 percent of Republicans, saw it as government services, like free health care. About 6 percent believe socialism means being social, including activity on social media.”

    -- The GOP flipped a state legislature seat in Kentucky, bringing its total count of state assembly seats flipped nationally to four. Democrats have flipped zero. The flipped seats include two in Connecticut, one of which had belonged to Democrats for over 25 years. (The Hill)

    -- The House Oversight Committee is launching an investigation into alleged voter suppression last November in Georgia, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp eked out a victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. Felicia Sonmez and Vanessa Williams report: “The oversight panel’s chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), and civil rights subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), said in letters to Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Wednesday that they are ‘investigating recent reports of serious problems with voter registration, voter access, and other matters affecting the ability of people in Georgia to exercise their right to vote.’ … Cummings and Raskin made a sweeping request for documents related to the election, giving Kemp and Raffensperger a deadline of March 20.”

    KNOWING KAMALA:

    -- When Kamala Harris was San Francisco’s top prosecutor, a crime lab scandal nearly ended her run for California attorney general. Harris failed to inform a judge that a lab technician brought home cocaine from the lab, potentially tainting hundreds of cases, and was becoming an unreliable witness for the prosecution. Michael Kranish reports: “With the local criminal-justice system at risk of devolving into chaos, Harris took the extraordinary step of dismissing about 1,000 drug-related cases, including many in which convictions had been obtained and sentences were being served. … A review of the case, based on court records and interviews with key players, presents a portrait of Harris scrambling to manage a crisis that her staff saw coming but for which she was unprepared.”

    One of the most involved players in the case was Harris’s law school friend Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender, who before dying last month told The Post that Harris was “slow to respond” to the controversy: “Some of the attorneys in Harris’s office ‘knew it was a problem and never informed us, the defense, that there was a problem with this.’ … The scandal escalated further when Adachi questioned whether Harris had also failed in separate cases to reveal the names of police officers who had been convicted or found to have committed misconduct. ...Harris said at the time that Adachi was ‘playing politics with public safety.’ She said in the Post interview that the police had legitimate privacy concerns.”

    -- Harris’s relationship with Adachi, who was her law school friend and tutor, suffered because of the scandal. Michael Kranish reports: “The fight was, on one level, an example of a prosecutor and defense attorney playing their respective roles. But it was all the more extraordinary because the two had been friends for years. … He as a public defender and she as a prosecutor. … They continued as adversaries and friends, often talking to each other about cases, and seeking support from the same set of voters.”

    When Harris sought Adachi’s support for her presidential candidacy earlier this year, Adachi said he wasn’t quite ready. The two friends then had an emotional call in which Adachi seemed open to the idea of potentially becoming a campaign adviser. However, eight days later, on Feb. 22, the San Francisco public defender died.

    THE #METOO MOVEMENT:

    -- Sen. Martha McSally revealed she was raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force. Felicia Sonmez reports: “McSally (R-Ariz.), the country’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, made the revelation during a hearing on preventing sexual assault in the military. ‘Like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor,’ McSally said, addressing several witnesses set to testify at the hearing about their own assaults while serving in the military. ‘But unlike so many brave survivors, I didn’t report being sexually assaulted. Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time.’ McSally told the panel that she blamed herself, was ‘ashamed and confused,’ and felt powerless about what happened to her. ‘The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways,’ she said. ‘In one case, I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.’”

    -- Musician R. Kelly erupted in anger about the sexual abuse allegations against him in his first interview since he was arrested. Elahe Izadi reports: “During the segment that aired Wednesday, [CBS News’s] Gayle King pressed him on the allegations made by dozens of people who were interviewed in a widely watched Lifetime docuseries. … ‘Everybody says something bad about me,’ Kelly said of the series. ‘Nobody said nothing good. They were describing Lucifer. I’m not Lucifer, I’m a man. I make mistakes, but I’m not a devil, and by no means am I a monster.’ Kelly called claims that he held women against their will ‘stupid’ and said that ‘the power of social media’ was to blame. ‘I have been assassinated. I have been buried alive,’ he said. Then he erupted. … King tried to interject, but Kelly stood up, screaming and pounding his fists. ‘Stop it! Y’all quit playing! Quit playing! I didn’t do this stuff! This is not me! … Y’all trying to kill me!’ he said.”

    -- A conservative local judge in Alabama has allowed a man to go forward with a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the pill his girlfriend used to end a pregnancy and the clinic that gave it to her on behalf of the aborted fetus. Madison County Probate Judge Frank Barger decreed that “Baby Roe” is a person in allowing the plaintiff, Ryan Magers, to sue the two parties for “wrongful death.” (Ariana Eunjung Cha and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux)

    -- Mario Batali has sold his shares in his company a year after sexual misconduct allegations emerged against the celebrity chef. The New York Times’s Julia Moskin reports: “Mr. Batali ‘will no longer profit from the restaurants in any way, shape or form,’ said Tanya Bastianich Manuali, who will head day-to-day operations at a new company, as yet unnamed, created to replace the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. The new company will operate the group’s remaining 16 restaurants under a new management and financial structure. Mrs. Bastianich Manuali and her brother, Joe Bastianich, have bought Mr. Batali’s shares in all the restaurants. … Mr. Batali is also selling his shares in Eataly, the fast-growing global chain of luxury Italian supermarkets.”

    -- London fans of Michael Jackson gathered to defend the pop star and protest a documentary on sexual abuse allegations against him. Jennifer Hassan reports: “Gathering outside the headquarters of British TV network Channel 4, the channel on which the documentary will be aired Wednesday and Thursday, a group of fans clutched photos and chanted in unison: ‘Facts don’t lie, people do.’ A few were dressed as Jackson, wearing sunglasses and sequined hats. Others held signs that read ‘Michael Jackson Innocent’ and ‘More records than any other artist, son, husband, father.’”

    -- Two teenagers who started a feminist club at their all-boys high school will attend the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women later this month. Matias Benitez and Matt Chen have hosted standing-room-only meetings during their lunch period since starting the club last year, less than a week before the Harvey Weinstein story broke. (Samantha Schmidt)

    THE TRUMP ECONOMY:

    -- “The luxury real estate market in Manhattan is sagging. The GOP tax law is hitting real estate markets across the nation. And signs of stress across the broader housing market suggest the industry which made Trump rich … could also be one that slows his economy and dents his chances at a second term,” Politico’s Ben White and Katy O’Donnell report. “The housing market may not cause the next recession like it did in 2008. But weakness in the construction of new homes, sales of existing homes and affordability for millennials looking to buy for the first time could contribute to a recession arriving as soon as next year or prolong any downturn. In addition to 2008, declines in the housing market were tied to recessions in 1974, 1980 and 1990-91, raising concerns that history is about to repeat. …

    One area where housing-market stress is obvious is the one Trump knows best: High-end apartments in Manhattan, where prices are now dropping as foreign buyers disappear and wealthy residents flee to lower-tax states. Trump’s New York home is not the only blue state where the housing market has taken a hit following the tax law changes. Markets are also suffering across the Northeast, where sales of new homes dropped 16.1 percent in December, according to brokerage firm Redfin.”

    -- Despite the president's campaign promises, the U.S. merchandise trade deficit hit a record high of $891.2 billion last year. David J. Lynch reports: “The trade gap with China also hit a record $419 billion, underscoring the stakes for the president’s bid to reach a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping as soon as this month. The [Commerce Department’s] final 2018 trade report, which was delayed by the partial government shutdown, showed that the United States bought far more in foreign goods than it sold to customers in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. The shortfall topped the 2006 record of $838.3 billion, set as the housing bubble was peaking, and marked the third consecutive year of rising deficits.”

    -- U.S. and European officials appear to be far from a trade deal, contrary to public statements last July from Trump and the European Commission president. The New York Times’s Ana Swanson and Jack Ewing report: “Trump administration officials insist that any deal must address the agricultural trade barriers that the president says put American farmers at a disadvantage, in part because such an agreement would be more likely to win congressional approval. European officials counter that agriculture was never on the table — not last July, and not now.”

    SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

    Trump suggested no general election debates should be aired on networks whose news coverage he has criticized after the DNC ended its media partnership with Fox:

    A Fox News anchor expressed dismay over the DNC's decision:

    From an MSNBC producer:

    From an MSNBC reporter:

    A House Democrat criticized the DHS secretary's answers about migrant family separations:

    An MSNBC host mocked one possible rationale for why Trump is running for reelection:

    Reporters searches for information on Ivanka Trump's security clearance went awry: 

    Trump's Oval Office meeting with a man who was abducted in Yemen featured some unexpected guests, per a Wall Street Journal reporter:

    A Bloomberg News reporter noted this odd exchange at the White House:

    The HUD secretary met with “Fixer Upper” star Chip Gaines in Waco, Tex.:

    Columnist Connie Schultz, who is married to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), criticized a Democratic super PAC's dismissal of Ohio for the 2020 election:

    This photo captured the tension during CBS News's interview with R. Kelly on the sexual abuse allegations against him:

    From Hearst's chief digital content officer:

    Oprah Winfrey applauded her best friend's professionalism throughout the interview despite Kelly's angry outburst:

    From a PBS NewsHour reporter:

    From a Post feature writer:

    A former “Jeopardy! contestant reflected on the news of Alex Trebek's illness:

    From the communications director for Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.):

    And a Republican congressman made a suggestion for Lent:

    GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

    -- Wall Street Journal, “Marie Kondo isn’t sparking joy for thrift stores,” by Rachel Pannett and Rhiannon Hoyle: “Since the reality TV show 'Tidying Up With Marie Kondo' made its debut on Netflix in January, used-goods stores have been inundated with donations. The problem: mass quantities of dirty, worn-out clothes, ugly trinkets and unsellable appliances. Even oddities like pornography and swords. ‘We love donations because it’s a thriving part of our business,’ said David Braddon, a senior district sales manager for Goodwill in Houston. But they should be in good condition, and appropriate, not ‘the kind of items that can’t be written about in a family newspaper,’ he said.”

    -- The Atlantic, “The AI art gold rush is here,” by Ian Bogost: “If they hadn’t found each other in the New York art scene, the players involved could have met on a Spike Jonze film set: a computer scientist commanding five-figure print sales from software that generates inkjet-printed images; a former hotel-chain financial analyst turned Chelsea techno-gallerist with apparent ties to fine-arts nobility; a venture capitalist with two doctoral degrees in biomedical informatics; and an art consultant who put the whole thing together, A-Team–style, after a chance encounter at a blockchain conference. Together, they hope to reinvent visual art, or at least to cash in on machine-learning hype along the way.”

    -- Vox, “Brexit has turned me into a prepper,” by Jessica Furseth: “I feel ridiculous counting the tins of beans in my larder, but everything about Brexit is ridiculous. I keep expecting to wake up from this madness, but there’s no escape — just endless headlines declaring that ‘riots will hit the streets after Brexit and the UK will be unstable for years,’ the queen will be evacuated, and we will run out of medicine and may never see a piece of fresh fruit again. No one knows what will happen if Britain crashes out of the EU in 24 days; as of today, there is no plan. I laughed at the Y2K preppers, stockpiling canned goods and batteries in anticipation of computers failing to cope with the year 2000. But now I’m starting to understand: on March 29, at 11 am sharp, we step off the cliff.”

    HOT ON THE LEFT:

    “In a blow to conservatives, a national business group is staying out of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race,” from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce won't pour money into this year's state Supreme Court race, creating new challenges for conservative candidate Brian Hagedorn. … The move comes as other conservatives signal they're staying on the sidelines after reports about Hagedorn founding a school that can ban teachers and students in gay relationships and giving paid speeches to a legal organization that has argued in favor of anti-sodomy laws.”

     

    HOT ON THE RIGHT:

    “Dem campaign chief: Medicare for All price tag 'a little scary,’” from the Hill: “The House Democrats’ new campaign chief on Tuesday poured cold water on the progressive Medicare for All plan, dismissing it as just ‘one idea’ out there and warning that its estimated $33 trillion price tag was ‘a little scary.’ ‘The ‘Green New Deal’ is an idea. ‘Medicare for all’ is an idea. But there are many others that are out there,’ Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said in an interview … ‘I think the $33 trillion price tag for Medicare for all is a little scary,’ she said.”

     

    DAYBOOK:

    Trump will meet with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and receive his intelligence briefing before having lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He and the first lady will later welcome the Czech prime minister and his wife to the White House. Trump will also meet with acting secretary of defense Patrick Shanahan and participate in a photo op with the 2019 Senate Youth Program.

    QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

    “My message to that group is to do your job. If you had done what you were elected to do on the front end, the president wouldn’t have to fix this problem on his own through a national emergency.” — Sarah Sanders addressing Senate Republicans who have said they may back a resolution to overturn Trump’s emergency declaration. (John Wagner)

     

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

    -- It’s sunny outside, but don’t let it fool you: The temperature is still pretty chilly. The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Today is a small improvement from yesterday’s wintry chill but for real warmth you have to wait until Sunday afternoon. In the interim a weak system passes through tomorrow with just enough moisture to produce a light mix of snow and rain that amounts to little. The balance of the weekend daylight hours end up dry as rain focuses mostly Saturday night into early Sunday morning.”

    -- The Wizards beat the Mavericks 132-123. (Gene Wang)

    -- The Capitals beat the Flyers 5-3. (Isabelle Khurshudyan

    -- The Maryland House will vote today on a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to legally obtain a lethal dose of medicine to end their lives. Ovetta Wiggins reports: "It is the first time — after three attempts in recent years — that the legislation will be debated on the floor of the General Assembly. The bill moved forward without any discussion, even though it has both strong support and strong opposition in the Democratic-majority House to make Maryland the seventh state to allow patients to get help in ending their own lives. ... Public support for such measures has grown. A recent Goucher College poll found that 6 in 10 Maryland residents favor allowing doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to terminally ill patients. ... The bill would apply only to terminally ill people who doctors say have less than six months to live. A patient would have to make three requests, both oral and written, to end his or her life, with waiting periods and the ability to rescind the request at any time.”

    -- D.C. Council member Jack Evans was sent a letter pressuring him to step down as a national committeeman for the D.C. Democratic State Committee. Fenit Nirappil reports: "'We are concerned that the clouds growing over your alleged activities complicate efforts to win D.C. Statehood, determine D.C.’s position in the primary calendar, and restore the faith of D.C. voters that their local Democratic Party leadership puts their interests first,' the letter says.  ... As an elected national committeeman, Evans represents the District of Columbia on the Democratic National Committee and serves on the local party’s executive committee. He has used that perch to try to move the District’s presidential primary to an earlier spot on the calendar to make it more meaningful. The District’s presidential primary is slated to be the last in the primary cycle, taking place in June 2020."

    VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

    The Senate majority leader brushed off questions about the chamber's planned votes:

    Samantha Bee dug into the New Yorker's groundbreaking story on Trump's relationship with Fox News:

    Stephen Colbert noted that one of the checks Trump gave Michael Cohen was signed on Valentine's Day:

    Hasan Minhaj asked his audience whether billionaires should run for president: 

    Trump flubbed the name of the Apple CEO:

    And Kirstjen Nielsen and Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) had this heated exchange during yesterday's hearing on border security: