With Mariana Alfaro

THE BIG IDEA: Joe Biden didn’t just defend himself in Detroit on Wednesday night. He went after Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand and even Bill de Blasio.

The media coverage of the second night of the second Democratic debate has focused on the hits leveled against Biden. But these were all expected. Going after the candidate leading in the polls is de rigueur. More striking, and historically unusual, was how hard Biden fired back at anyone and everyone who criticized him.

Coming out swinging the way he did will probably reassure panicky donors and bed-wetting establishmentarians, thereby stabilizing his struggling campaign. But it also diminishes his stature. Yes, Biden leads in the polls. But calling him the front-runner feels like an exaggeration. Last night demonstrated that, unable to stay above the fray the way he hoped he could, Biden is now in the mosh pit with everyone else.

After faltering during the first debate in Miami – and facing not-so-quiet whispers about his age – Biden seemed determined to show that he’s the kind of street brawler who can take the fight directly to President Trump. At times, however, his performance was reminiscent of Trump’s response to Hillary Clinton during a 2016 debate: “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet!” The Biden debate strategy can best be summed up with the playground taunt: I know what you are, but what am I?

That’s certainly how Biden sounded when he accused both African American senators onstage – each the child of civil rights activists – of being weak on civil rights.

In Biden’s telling, Booker stood idly by as mayor of Newark while police officers under his command engaged in stop-and-frisk policies that targeted black men. “You went out and you hired Rudy Giuliani's guy,” Biden said. “You had 75 percent of those stops reviewed as illegal. You found yourself in a situation where three times as many African American kids were caught in that chain. … The Justice Department came after you for engaging in behavior that was inappropriate, and then, in fact, nothing happened the entire time you were mayor.”

Standing next to Biden, Booker noted that the local leader of the American Civil Liberties Union praised him for putting forth a national model in police accountability. “If you want to compare records — and, frankly, I’m shocked that you do — I’m happy to do that,” he said. “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community. You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor. You need to come to the city of Newark and see the reforms that we put in place.”

Still sore over the way she lacerated him last time for working with segregationist senators to oppose busing in the 1970s, Biden tried to turn the tables by focusing on Harris’s record as a prosecutor. “When Senator Harris was attorney general for eight years in the state of California, there were two of the most segregated school districts in the country in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. And she did nothing,” he said. “I didn't see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate them. Secondly, she also was in a situation where she had a police department when she was there that was abusing people's rights.”

Biden essentially accused Harris of prosecutorial misconduct, claiming that she withheld exculpatory evidence from “defense attorneys like me.” “Along came a federal judge who said, ‘Enough!’ And he freed 1,000 of these people,” Biden continued. “If you doubt me, Google ‘1,000 prisoners freed, Kamala Harris.’”

Harris responded, “That is simply not true.” She added that she spent her time as California’s chief law enforcement office “cleaning up the bills you passed” in the Senate.

Referring to himself as a defense attorney is a stretch: Biden was a part-time public defender for about a year in the late 1960s. He spent the lion’s share of the half-century that followed as one of the Democratic Party’s most outspoken tough-on-crime acolytes.

Gillibrand, the senator from New York, questioned Biden over an op-ed he wrote in 1981 with the headline “Congress Is Subsidizing Deterioration of Family.” In it, the then-senator argued that couples with higher income shouldn’t get tax credits for child care because, if they can afford it, one parent should stay home. “That was a long time ago,” Biden responded.

Then he highlighted Gillibrand’s past praise for his record on women’s issues. “You came to Syracuse University with me and said it was ‘wonderful’ that I'm ‘passionate’ about … making sure women are treated equally,” he said. “I don't know what's happened, except that you’re now running for president.”

When de Blasio asked Biden whether he ever advised Barack Obama to deport fewer undocumented immigrants during their eight years in the White House, Biden suggested – apparently apropos of nothing – that the New York mayor cannot be trusted to hold someone’s confidences. “I keep my recommendation to him in private,” he told de Blasio. “Unlike you, I can expect you would go ahead and say whatever was said privately with him. That is not what I do.”

But Biden had no qualms during the immigration discussion about disclosing that Castro, who was Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development, did not bring up the issue during Cabinet meetings. “I never heard him talk about any of this when he was secretary,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is, if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.”

Castro replied: “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t.”

Biden wielded the former president like a shield. “Everybody’s talking about how terrible I am on all these issues,” he said. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. … He had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made.”

This argument makes sense. A CNN poll last year found that 66 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Obama, including 97 percent of Democrats. But when Biden distanced himself from the Obama administration’s record of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, Booker called him out for trying to have it both ways. “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” he said. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”

Criticizing his opponents who support Medicare-for-all, Biden accused them of trying to destroy Obamacare and peddling “a bunch of malarkey.” That’s long been one of his favorite fallback words. He said the plan – initially championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and embraced to varying degrees by a handful of the other candidates – will raise taxes on the middle class by trillions and increase out-of-pocket health-care costs. Referring to de Blasio and Harris, he said: “I don’t know what math you do in New York. I don’t know what math you do in California.”

In most of these instances, it appeared that Biden was trying to muddy the water enough so that these exchanges would get described as a draw. Taken together, they underscore just how many big issues he’s vulnerable on in the modern political environment. In other ways, the exchanges showed, stylistically, how much he’s a throwback to another time.

Biden began the line of attack on Castro by referring to his opponent as “Julián.” Then he corrected himself. “Excuse me,” he said, “the secretary.” (That gave me a flashback to when Sarah Palin asked Biden if she could call him “Joe” at the start of their debate in 2008.)

Biden accidentally referred to Booker as “the president” during his attack over stop-and-frisk, but he was playful about it. “Excuse me,” he quipped, “the future president.” (Booker loved it.) “Go easy on me, kid,” the 76-year-old joked to Harris, 54, as she came onstage and shook his hand.

Elizabeth Warren was not onstage, but Biden even took a little dig at the senator from Massachusetts, as well. Jake Tapper read aloud the quote from the night before about how Democrats won’t win in 2020 “with small ideas and spinelessness.” Biden replied by touting his role in the auto industry bailout. “I suspect that’s why the mayor [of Detroit] endorsed me,” he said, “and not the senator.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has made climate change the centerpiece of his campaign, said Biden’s environmental proposals aren’t sufficiently ambitious. “Middle-ground solutions like what the vice president has proposed are not going to save us,” said Inslee. “There is no middle ground about my plan,” Biden replied.

“I’ve heard you say that we need a realistic plan,” said Inslee.

Biden took umbrage. “No, I didn’t say that,” he replied.

Let that sink in. It was as if “realistic” has somehow become a pejorative. Biden’s reflexive denial that he ever called his plan “realistic” speaks volumes about the leftward lurch of the party since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a primary last summer. Moments like this are why so many Democratic pooh-bahs are fretting privately that Trump’s chances of getting reelected go up with each debate. Ultimately, more than anything else, the allergy toward “realistic” approaches might be what dooms Biden’s third try for the presidency.

HOW IT’S PLAYING:

-- Wednesday’s debate turned on character as much as ideology, which chief correspondent Dan Balz interprets as a foreboding turn for Democrats: “By the end of the evening, the candidates had done as much to make a case against one another as against the president, without offering much in the way of an aspirational message or connecting directly with the voters they will need to win the presidential election. The reality is that little changed as a result of the debate. The absence of clear winners and the absence of the emergence of a candidate with a hopeful message for a broader audience produced a status quo ending. … Harris delivered a more uneven performance than in Miami. Booker, by his aggressiveness toward Biden, made his bid to move up in a race where he has struggled. Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) lamented that the Democrats were wasting time litigating the past and ignoring both the urgent problems of today and the threats posed by the Trump administration. His voice went largely unheard by the others on the stage.”

-- As several Democrats rushed to criticize Biden, they grew increasingly comfortable with criticizing Obama’s legacy by proxy. Matt Viser, Toluse Olorunnipa and Amy B Wang report: “The Obama administration’s record on deportations, criminal justice, trade and health care was challenged implicitly and explicitly by several candidates. Even Biden stepped away from the former president on one issue, saying he no longer supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” That’s quite a flip-flop. Biden was a prominent salesman for the deal three years ago. Notably, Obama is staying neutral and has declined to endorse his former No. 2.

-- More team coverage:

-- What pundits are saying about who won and lost:

  • The Fix’s Aaron Blake names Sanders and Warren as the winners of the debate’s second round, despite not being onstage, because “their performances were even better in contrast.” Castro and Yang were also winners in Blake’s book. Harris and Biden were the losers.
  • CNN’s Chris Cillizza thinks Booker, Gabbard, Castro and Biden had a great night, while Harris and Gillibrand stayed behind.
  • Vox’s Matthew Yglesias thinks Booker and Biden won.
  • Politico’s Elena Schneider doesn’t think there’s a clear winner in a “10-car pileup,” but she did come up with some superlatives: Biden was the hottest target, and Booker had the best zinger.
  • Fox News’s Doug Schoen thinks Biden and Gabbard won while Gillibrand and Inslee left defeated. 
  • The Detroit Free Press says Harris did the best job in an otherwise murky debate.
  • The BBC’s Anthony Zurcher named Biden the debate’s clear winner and Harris the clear loser.

-- Other takes this morning from across the media ecosystem:

-- From The Post’s opinion page:

  • “I’m grateful for every single woman running for president. Even Marianne Williamson,” writes Alyssa Rosenberg. “I wouldn’t vote for every woman running for president in the Democratic primary. But I’m grateful for the presence of every single one of them. Equality isn’t a single perfect human woman winning the presidency: it’s a bunch of flawed women being considered genuinely plausible contenders for the post.” 
  • “Booker broke through. Biden struck back. Harris got put in the hot seat,” writes E.J. Dionne Jr.
  • “Biden performed better in the second debate. CNN didn’t,” writes Jennifer Rubin. “Unfortunately, CNN seemed to learn nothing from its horrendous reviews for Tuesday night. The same time-wasting, overproduced 25 minutes of blather at the onset, the same rigid enforcement of time constraints on candidates, the same lack of attention to foreign policy and the same crudely provocative style of questions reinforced the conclusion that not only CNN but also all of the broadcast news outlets and the DNC need to rethink the format of these events.”  
  • “Biden was brilliantly and gloriously adequate,” raves Dana Milbank. “He wasn’t the most eloquent or stylish debater on the stage. He struggled to find words at times, he seemed over-rehearsed, he seemed not to grasp how texting works … he cut himself off when his allotted time expired and, at times, he seemed stunned by the ferocity of the barrage — which, in fairness, was stunning.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY:

“The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology.” – Gabbard to Harris (Meagan Flynn)

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WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

-- The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a dramatic step bound to further escalate tensions with Tehran. Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung report:A senior administration official said Zarif had acted more as a ‘propaganda minister’ than a diplomat. The announcement came as Trump’s national security adviser said that nuclear-related sanctions on Iran would again be waived, despite the opposition of some of the administration’s most hard-line officials. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had advocated ending the waiver, which allows Russia, China and Europe to participate in Iran’s civil nuclear program, as permitted under the 2015 agreement from which the administration withdrew last year. Five current waivers were due to expire Thursday, and the Treasury Department expressed concern about collateral effects of ending them on other signatories of the deal. In a statement about the sanctions on Zarif, Pompeo said the foreign minister was ‘complicit’ in Iran’s support of terrorists, torture and other malign activity around the world.”

Zarif mocked the designation:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Trump confidant who met with Zarif recently to discuss back-channel communications, expressed concern:

-- A North Korean soldier defected by making a midnight dash to freedom across the heavily fortified demilitarized zone. David Crawshaw reports: “The man crossed into South Korea late on Wednesday and was spotted moving south along the Imjin River about 11:38 p.m. ... It is relatively rare for North Koreans to attempt to cross directly to the South. Doing so involves traversing the DMZ, a heavily defended strip of no man’s land running across the peninsula that is dotted with military guard posts, land mines, barbed wire and other barriers.” 

-- Hamza bin Laden, the son of the al-Qaeda founder, died. From the Times: “Details of the strike that killed him were scarce, including when and where. The United States government played a role in the operation, but it was not clear how … Though Mr. bin Laden carried a prominent name and lineage, the news of his death represented more of a symbolic victory for the American government than the removal of a threat. … Other key members of the organization remain alive, including Saif al-Adel and Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who are wanted by the F.B.I. in the bombings of two United States embassies in East Africa in 1998. They are thought to be in Iran.”

THE DOMESTIC AGENDA: 

-- The Fed cut the benchmark interest rate for the first time in more than a decade, lowering it by a quarter-point to just under 2.25 percent. Heather Long reports: The goal is to bolster the country’s economy “amid early signs of a global slowdown. However, the central bank also inadvertently caused confusion about what it plans to do next, disquieting the stock market. Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said the Fed was going to do whatever it takes to ‘sustain the expansion,’ but he stopped short of committing to a series of rate reductions as Wall Street and President Trump have demanded. ‘Let me be clear. What I said was, it’s not the beginning of a long series of rate cuts,’ Powell said.” These comments caused a sharp drop in the markets and, by the end of the trading day, the Dow Jones industrial average had lost 1.2 percent. 

-- If the economy is in good shape, why is the Fed cutting rates in the first place? Long writes: “Lowering interest rates, the Fed’s main way to boost the economy, is typically used in dire times, which it’s difficult to argue the United States is experiencing right now. Instead, top Fed officials are defending this as an ‘insurance cut’ that’s akin to an immunization shot in the arm. They want to counteract the negative effects of Trump’s trade war and prevent the United States from catching the same cold that Europe, China and elsewhere seem to have. … It’s a tricky calculus. … Realistically, one cut won’t do much. The reason the stock market has rallied sharply in recent weeks is an expectation that this is the first of several cuts. ... If the Fed does not do three cuts this year, the market could pull back, making financial conditions ‘tight’ again, even though the Fed is cutting rates to try to loosen conditions.”

-- Gary Cohn, Trump’s former chief economic adviser, said that the president’s tariffs are backfiring and hurting the U.S. economy. “I think the Chinese economy was going to slow down with or without a trade war,” he told the BBC.

-- China’s central bank opted overnight not to follow the Fed in cutting rates. From Reuters: “Though China’s central bank does not always follow the Fed’s moves in lockstep, some analysts had thought a token People’s Bank of China cut, likely in one of its short-term rates, was a possibility. … While heading off a sharper economic slowdown remains Beijing’s top priority, officials fear easing too aggressively could fuel debt and financial risks, according to government advisers involved in internal policy discussions.”

-- The White House told officials to maintain a measured response to anti-government protests in Hong Kong over fears that any public statements would derail U.S. efforts to finalize a trade deal with China. From the Wall Street Journal: “‘It was made clear down the chain that we need to be measured on Hong Kong,’ one administration official said, noting that the guidance came from ‘the top’ over concern that fragile talks with China might be jeopardized by any outward show of support for the protests. The actions reflect the administration’s foreign-policy moves that prioritize Mr. Trump’s interest in safeguarding relationships where he sees opportunity for economic or political gain, sometimes going against the will of allies and even lawmakers within his own Republican Party.”

-- Trump ordered the Navy’s top leaders to rescind awards given to military lawyers who prosecuted the war crimes case against Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted of charges that he murdered a wounded Islamic State fighter in Iraq. Colby Itkowitz reports: “Trump had intervened on Gallagher’s behalf, having him removed from solitary confinement in March while awaiting trial. As the military news site Task & Purpose reported Tuesday, members of the prosecution team were quietly presented with Navy Achievement Medals on July 10 for their work on the case. In tweets Wednesday, Trump said the decorations were ‘ridiculously given.’ ‘Not only did they lose the case,’ Trump wrote on Twitter, ‘they had difficulty with respect to information that may have been obtained from opposing lawyers and for giving immunity in a totally incompetent fashion.’”

-- The Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting is the latest vivid example of how strict gun laws in the states can be neutralized by lax laws in a neighboring state. The gunman who killed three and wounded 12 legally purchased a weapon in Nevada that he could not have gotten in California. “New York and New Jersey, for example, also have gun laws that rank among the tightest in the country. But the flow of firearms up Interstate 95 keeps both states supplied with weapons to such a staggering extent that the trafficking network is known as the ‘Iron Pipeline.'" the Times notes. “To advocates of stricter gun laws, the messy patchwork of state laws that contributed to the tragedy in Gilroy is one more reason that federal gun-law changes are needed.”

-- A group of doctors urged Congress to investigate the deaths of six migrant children and detention centers at the border in fear that “poor conditions” at U.S. facilities are increasing the spread of deadly diseases. Robert Moore reports: “The doctors, who wrote to Congress on Thursday, said autopsy reports show that at least three of the children — ages 2, 6 and 16 — died in part as a result of having the flu, a far-higher incidence of such deaths than across the general population. Child flu deaths are rare, the doctors said, and should be preventable. ... The letter, dated Thursday, alleges that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services — which supervises longer-term custody of unaccompanied migrant minors — might not be following best practices in regard to screening, treatment, isolation and prevention of the flu.”

-- The House Oversight Committee is seeking documents related to the secret U.S. Customs and Border Protection Facebook groups in which former employees ridiculed migrants and shared racist and sexist memes. Felicia Sonmez reports: “In a letter Wednesday to acting customs and border protection commissioner Mark Morgan, [Elijah] Cummings voiced alarm that some of the agents involved in the Facebook groups may still be on the job. … [The chairman] requested that CBP provide all documents related to the matter by Aug. 14.”

-- A woman whose 1-year-old daughter died weeks after being released from a Texas immigration detention center sued the private prison company that runs the facility. From the AP: “Lawyers for Yazmin Juárez are demanding $40 million from CoreCivic in the complaint filed in federal court in San Antonio. It’s the third legal claim they have filed related to the death of Yazmin’s daughter, Mariee, in May last year. … In a statement, CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said the company ‘had deep sympathy for the family and the tragic loss of their child,’ and that ICE was responsible for hiring and overseeing medical staff.”

-- Eight Republicans have announced their retirement plans this year, reflecting the party’s transformation in the Trump era. From Paul Kane: “Most of those GOP retirements, so far, come from safely red seats … These retirements by influential Republicans suggest that there is increasing doubt about whether they can defy history and become the first caucus to flip the House majority during a presidential election since 1952. … The unspoken fear among Republicans is that more retirements could be on the way, particularly over this long recess as members of Congress spend time with their families, travel their district or make official overseas trips.”

-- The Federal Trade Commission warned that so many people are seeking cash payments from Equifax following its 2017 data breach that there may not be enough money for everyone who applies to claim the $125 check. From CNN Business: “The FTC is trying to persuade Americans to pick a different option: take Equifax's offer of free credit monitoring instead. ‘Millions of people’ have logged onto a claims website set up by the federal government, the FTC said, following a multi-million-dollar settlement with Equifax announced last Monday. The site has been live for a week. Under the deal, consumers can file for Equifax's free credit monitoring or to receive a check for up to $125, which is meant to reimburse the cost of getting credit monitoring from elsewhere.”

PERSONNEL IS POLICY:

-- Trump’s pick for managing federal lands does not believe the government should have any. Steven Mufson reports: “Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order making the Wyoming native William Perry Pendley the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley, former president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, was a senior official in Ronald Reagan’s administration. … In the three decades since serving under Reagan, Pendley has sued the Interior Department on behalf of an oil and gas prospector, sought to undermine protections of endangered species such as the grizzly bear, and pressed to radically reduce the size of federal lands to make way for development. ‘The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,’ he wrote approvingly in a National Review magazine article in 2016. He said ‘westerners know that only getting title to much of the land in the West will bring real change.’ …

“Pendley’s ties to the most conservative networks run deep. Pendley’s Mountain States Legal Foundation, founded in 1977 and initially run by Reagan’s controversial first Interior Secretary James G. Watt, has received backing from ultraconservative groups and individuals such as the Koch-linked Donors Trust and beer tycoon Joseph Coors. Pendley will once again be overseeing a coal leasing program he was found to have mismanaged … More recently in a September 2017 article in the National Review magazine, Pendley attacked then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for failing to do enough to reduce the size of the country’s national monuments.”

-- Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson showed up in Baltimore to defend the president’s negative descriptions of the city, saying there are “a lot of good things in Baltimore, but there are a lot of bad things too.” Ovetta Wiggins reports: “It’s sort of like a patient who has cancer: You can dress them up and put a nice suit on and try to ignore it, but that cancer is going to have a devastating effect,” he said while standing outside Hollins House, a federally funded housing complex for senior citizens in the congressional district of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). “You have to be willing to address that issue if you are ever going to solve it.” No state or city officials appeared at Carson’s event, which was originally scheduled to be held on a church lot across an apartment complex. The event was hastily moved to an alley behind the complex after a member of the church said no one had asked permission to hold an event on the property.

-- The Senate Armed Services Committee voted to advance Trump’s pick to be the military’s second-highest officer, despite an Army colonel’s allegations that he sexually assaulted her. Karoun Demirjian reports: “The vote was 20 to 7, reflecting bipartisan support for Gen. John E. Hyten … The vote also reflected bipartisan opposition, after Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) decided to vote against recommending Hyten’s confirmation because of ‘his inability to address toxic leadership and exercise sound judgment while serving as STRATCOM Commander,’ according to her spokeswoman. … Hyten appeared before the committee for his confirmation hearing Tuesday, where he flatly denied Col. Kathryn Spletstoser’s charges … On Wednesday, she responded to what she called the committee’s ‘gut-wrenching’ decision to recommend Hyten for confirmation in a statement imploring the panel to let her speak publicly in a hearing before them.”

-- The Senate confirmed Kelly Knight Craft as the next U.N. ambassador in a party-line vote. Demirjian reports: “Craft struggled to allay Democrats’ concerns about her family’s significant investments in the fossil fuel industry, though notably she separated herself from the president on climate change. During her confirmation hearing in June, Craft declared that she believes fossil fuels and human behavior contribute to the planet’s shifting weather phenomena. ‘Let there be no doubt,’ she said. She also pushed back against Democrats’ accusations that she had spent too much time away from her post in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. … During her confirmation hearing, she defended Trump’s decision to reduce payments to the U.N. and pull out of bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council.”

-- The administration’s intelligence watchdog said he will not investigate how the White House handled security clearances for Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and other employees unless the president directs him to. From NBC News: “Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, meaning the chief internal watchdog for the nation's intelligence agencies, wrote to [Democratic] senators that he would be happy to conduct such an investigation, but could only do it if President Trump asks him.”

-- A former congressional staffer who fought to discredit the Russia investigation got a senior White House national security job. From the Daily Beast: “Kash Patel, who helmed the efforts of former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to scrutinize the court-authorized surveillance of a Trump associate has taken on the role of Senior Director of the Counterterrorism Directorate of the National Security Council (NSC), according to two sources familiar with the move. … Patel drew national attention in early 2018, when Nunes oversaw the production and release of a memo on surveillance of Trump campaign advisor Carter Page. … Patel also sparred with Rod Rosenstein during his time supervising the Russia probe.”

-- Two former top staffers to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lobbied for an aluminum mill project in Kentucky backed by a close ally of Vladimir Putin. From Politico: “The disclosure comes as Democrats are pushing the Trump administration to review Rusal’s $200 million investment in the Kentucky project — concerned that the mill will supply the Defense Department — and as McConnell weathers criticism for helping block a congressional effort to stop the investment. The Russian firm was only able to make the investment after it won sanctions relief from penalties the Treasury Department initially imposed in April 2018 on Rusal and other companies owned by Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and Kremlin ally accused of facilitating Moscow’s nefarious activities. ... It’s unclear whether the former staffers — Hunter Bates, a former McConnell chief of staff, and Brendan Dunn, who advised the Kentucky Republican on tax, trade and financial services matters before heading to K Street last year — directly lobbied McConnell’s office over the aluminum mill project. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the law and lobbying firm where Bates and Dunn work, and McConnell’s office declined to comment on whether they had done so.

-- The Kremlin announced that Trump called Putin to offer U.S. help with fighting Siberian wildfires. From Reuters: “The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken by phone at Washington’s initiative, hours after Putin ordered the Russian army to help firefighters battle the wildfires. The fires have spread to around 3 million hectares of mostly remote forest, an area almost the size of Belgium, according to the Federal Forestry Agency, wafting smoke across Siberia and prompting several regions to declare states of emergency. … ‘President Putin expressed his sincere gratitude for such an attentive attitude and for the offer of help and support,’ [the Kremlin said]. Putin told Trump that Moscow would take him up on his offer if necessary, the Kremlin said, adding: ‘The Russian president took this step from the U.S. president as a sign that in the future we can restore full-scale ties between our two countries.’” We know about this call because the Kremlin announced it. The White House did not. This is another norm that's been violated in the Trump era.

-- Russia and the U.S. have eased tensions over a visa deal for students enrolled in an American Embassy-backed school. (Bloomberg News

-- Follow the money: Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, explains in a Post op-ed why his committee needs to review the president’s tax returns: “I’d rather hold a roundtable in Pittsfield, Mass., or cross-examine Medicare administrators than pick fights on cable news. Those arguments tend to drive people into their corners, shrinking opportunities to accomplish real results. I’m an institutionalist. I respect Congress, for all its imperfections. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, I am responsible for congressional oversight of the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service’s administration of the federal tax code. The tax code gives the committee chairman the power to request taxpayer information from the IRS. The committee has exercised this power at various times in the past and has never been denied by the IRS or the Treasury Department. In early April, I requested the president’s tax returns to fulfill a legitimate congressional oversight responsibility: Our voluntary tax-compliance system hinges on the public’s faith that our tax laws are administered fairly and without favor to those in power. The president is unique: No other American has the power to sign bills into law and direct an entire branch of government. That power, and the extent to which the IRS can audit and enforce federal tax laws against a current or future president, merits closer legislative scrutiny.”

THE #METOO RECKONING: 

-- Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of trafficking girls as young as 14 for sex, hoped to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating dozens of women at his New Mexico ranch. From the New York Times: “On multiple occasions starting in the early 2000s, Mr. Epstein told scientists and businessmen about his ambitions to use his New Mexico ranch as a base where women would be inseminated with his sperm and would give birth to his babies. ... Epstein over the years confided to scientists and others about his scheme, according to four people familiar with his thinking, although there is no evidence that it ever came to fruition. … [His] vision reflected his longstanding fascination with what has become known as transhumanism: the science of improving the human population through technologies like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.”

Epstein used his connections and charisma to build relationships with an array of prominent scientists, including the physicist who discovered the quark and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking: “The lure for some of the scientists was Mr. Epstein’s money. … Some of the scientists said that the prospect of financing blinded them to the seriousness of his sexual transgressions, and even led them to give credence to some of Mr. Epstein’s half-baked scientific musings. … Mr. Epstein was willing to finance research that others viewed as bizarre. He told one scientist that he was bankrolling efforts to identify a mysterious particle that might trigger the feeling that someone is watching you. … Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor emeritus of law at Harvard, recalled that at a lunch Mr. Epstein hosted in Cambridge, Mass., he steered the conversation toward the question of how humans could be improved genetically. Mr. Dershowitz said he was appalled, given the Nazis’ use of eugenics to justify their genocidal effort to purify the Aryan race. Yet the lunches persisted.”

-- Epstein and Trump partied together and swam in the same social pool for the better part of two decades starting in the late 1980s before suddenly becoming rivals over the rights to a Palm Beach, Fla., property in 2004. Beth Reinhard, Rosalind S. Helderman and Marc Fisher report: “Photos and articles captured the men together over the years, the future president of the United States and the future convicted sex offender. … ‘They were tight,’ said one person who observed them together and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. ‘They were each other’s wingmen.’ … In November 2004, Trump … declared himself intent on winning ‘the finest piece of land in Florida and probably the U.S.,’ an estate that had been seized as part of the bankruptcy of nursing home magnate Abe Gosman. … In contrast to Trump, Epstein seemed interested in living at the place. … As the competition heated up, Trump and Epstein began talking each other down to the trustee.” Trump ultimately won the property, which he sold four years later for more than twice the price he bought it for. But ever since, his relationship with Epstein has been fractured. ...

Trump also appears to have been helpful to Epstein’s accusers. Brad Edwards, an attorney for some of the alleged victims, said in an interview last year that when he was seeking information from Epstein’s acquaintances in 2009, Trump was ‘the only person who picked up the phone and said: ‘Let’s just talk. I’ll give you as much time as you want. I’ll tell you what you need to know.’”

-- Epstein’s sex trafficking trial could last a month or more, his defense attorney said. Prosecutors want the trial to begin in June 2020, while Epstein’s defense wants it to start after Labor Day of next year. (Renae Merle and Matt Zapotosky)

-- Princess Haya Bint Hussein, one of the six wives of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Maktoum, is seeking protection from him. She’s not the first woman in his family to do so. Ruby Mellen reports: “Haya’s case has fixed a fresh spotlight on previous allegations of cruelty against Maktoum from female members of his family. Two of his daughters from another wife have attempted to flee the kingdom, saying they sought freedom from the family’s repressive rule. They were both captured and brought back to Dubai. But their cases have sparked international concern. ‘When you see female members of the royal family literally fleeing the country and seeking asylum, it should indicate the even greater extent to which average women in the UAE are denied basic rights,’ said Radha Stirling, the chief executive of British-based advocacy group Detained in Dubai.”

-- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept his wife a secret for decades as he ascended in the country’s political ranks. She hasn’t heard from him for years, but she still waits for his call. Annie Gowen reports: “The wife, Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi, is a retired teacher who lives in a small town in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Although she had not heard from her husband in years, she says she still hopes to join him one day in the capital as his spouse. ‘If he calls me, I will go,’ she said in an interview. ‘I hear all his speeches on TV. I feel very good when I hear him speak. I want him to fulfill all his promises to the people. That’s my prayer to God.’ … [Modi] and his wife were promised to each other as young adolescents in keeping with the traditions of their community. They were then married in a small ceremony when she was 17 and he was 18. …

“Narendra Modi left shortly thereafter to wander in the Himalayas with little more than a change of clothing in his rucksack … [He] never returned to his wife but never divorced her, even as he became the high-profile chief minister of Gujarat and, last year, India’s premier. He never publicly spoke of his wife, and journalists who sniffed around on the topic as Modi’s fame grew were privately discouraged from doing so. … After he became prime minister, she was assigned an official security detail. But it has not been a happy experience. … She subsists on a small pension from her time as a teacher. She keeps a small photo of her husband tucked in her prayer book and spends long hours in solitude.”

-- Outrage drove a Malaysian senator to back away from an “anti-seduction” law he had proposed. From SBS News: “Mohamad Imran Abdul Hamid told the senate, known as the Dewan Negara, that a new law was needed to protect men. ‘I propose a Sexual Harassment Act to protect men,’ he said according to a report in local news outlet Malaysiakini. … Human rights watchdog Suaram immediately called for Imran to issue a public apology and retract his remarks, saying such claims were ‘absurd.’”

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Kirsten Gillibrand's communications director shared the 1981 op-ed that the senator attacked Biden for writing during the debate. Biden's deputy campaign manager responded by sharing a picture of Jill Biden arriving at her job as a community college instructor earlier this year:

Trump didn't seem impressed with the performances he saw on the debate stage: 

People quickly snapped up the domain name for the wrong URL that Biden told viewers to check out at the end of his closing statement:

Many online mocked “Grandpa Joe”:

The Kool-Aid social media team seized on Booker’s quip against Biden:

Tulsi Gabbard saw a big bump in searches during the debate: 

The Castro brothers, Julián and Rep. Joaquin Castro, rode to the debate with their mom:

Rep. Castro grew a beard to avoid being confused with his twin brother, the presidential hopeful. It doesn't seem to be working:

The ACLU complained that there was not more conversation about voting rights:

A Post columnist noted that Gabbard's history with Syria's Bashar al-Assad needs to be brought up more, especially on the debate stage:

A HuffPost political reporter predicted who will get cut before the next debate:

A few hecklers stole the public's attention at points during the debate:

One of the protesters took to Twitter to explain what, in her view, happened:

De Blasio's campaign acknowledged the protesters:

A pro-Bernie Sanders group attacked Rep. Tim Ryan for trying to seize on one of his most memorable lines from Tuesday night:

From the new White House press secretary:

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

Seth Meyers doesn't think Biden made a good choice by going after New Yorkers' math skills:

Stephen Colbert joked that the second round of the debate was "all about the moderates," calling it a "rage for incremental change": 

Julián Castro stopped by Samantha Bee's show to talk about his plan to decriminalize border crossings: 

Jimmy Kimmel thinks Biden stuck to his promise of not being too nice during this debate: 

A wave machine malfunctioned at a water park in China, creating a tsunami-style wave that injured 44 tourists: