With Mariana Alfaro

Sen. Elizabeth Warren suspended her presidential campaign this morning, probably clearing the way for Bernie Sanders to get the head-to-head debate with Joe Biden that he craves in Phoenix on March 15. It’s the next obvious moment when the independent senator from Vermont might be able to rewrite the narrative of the contest for the Democratic nomination.

After moderates consolidated behind the former vice president, Sanders finds himself back in the role of underdog, just as he was against Hillary Clinton at this moment four years ago. Last week, he seemed poised – and pleased – to avoid this position. But Biden won 10 of the 14 states that voted on Super Tuesday, forging the kind of broad coalition that could win the nomination and presidency. Then former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg dropped out on Wednesday and endorsed the former vice president after his $600 million bet failed to pay off. With California still tallying results, Biden has 433 delegates to Sanders’s 388.

With Warren (D-Mass.) out, the only other major candidate left is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). She earned a delegate from American Samoa on Tuesday, but Democratic National Committee officials signaled that they will raise the threshold to qualify for the Phoenix debate so that this is no longer sufficient to get onstage.

Sanders’s messaging against Biden grew unfocused during the impeachment trial and stayed muddled in the run-up to South Carolina, which allowed Biden to get off the mat. Recognizing this, Sanders has crystalized what will be his five-part case against Biden. He previewed the message during a news conference yesterday afternoon in Burlington, Vt.

“Joe is going to have to explain to the people, the union workers in the Midwest, why he’s supported disastrous trade agreements,” Sanders said. “Joe is going to have to explain to the American people why he voted for a Wall Street bailout, something that I vigorously opposed.” Sanders added that “Joe is also going to have to explain” his vote to authorize the Iraq War, “a disastrous bankruptcy bill which benefited the credit card companies” and his onetime advocacy for freezing Social Security benefits.

Sanders is up on the air now in Michigan and other states voting next week with two new attack ads against Biden, focused on trade and Social SecurityHe hopes to use Biden’s vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement as a cudgel to prevent white working-class voters from rallying behind Biden in the Wolverine State’s primary next Tuesday. This constituency allowed Sanders to win an upset over Clinton there in 2016. “Only one candidate for president has consistently opposed every disastrous trade deal, and that candidate is Bernie Sanders,” a narrator says.

Glenn Kessler has a new fact check this morning of Sanders’s attack against Biden over Social Security: “[It] mostly relates to a mid-1990s effort to rein in budget deficits though adoption of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Biden voted for it in 1996, though it did not pass. A balanced-budget amendment by itself would not require cuts in certain programs, but in the 1980s, Biden had co-sponsored a bill calling for a one-year across-the-board freeze in spending, including eliminating cost-of-living increases for one year for Social Security and Medicare. 

“During the balanced-budget debate a decade later, Biden cited that proposal to show that he cared about budget deficits. ‘When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government,’ Biden said in a Jan. 31, 1995, speech on the Senate floor. But the Biden campaign also cites dozens of examples of votes cast by Biden to shield Social Security from cuts or to expand benefits.”

Sanders does not have much time to change the trajectory of this race. Michigan is one of the six states voting next Tuesday that will collectively award 352 delegates. Biden is expected to win Mississippi, on account of its sizable African American population, though Sanders will fly there on Friday to deliver a speech aimed at black voters. Missouri, Washington state, Idaho and North Dakota are the other four prizes. The following Tuesday, two days after the Phoenix debate, brings primaries in four states, with 577 delegates on the line: Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio. By the end of March, about two-thirds of delegates will have been awarded.

Sanders said he wants a substantive debate over policy differences, not “Trump-type” personal attacks. “Joe and I have a very different vision for the future of this country, and Joe and I are running very different campaigns,” he said on Wednesday. “My hope is that, in the coming months, we will be able to debate and discuss the very significant differences that we have.”

Biden appears determined to portray Sanders as divisive and eager to avoid getting bogged down in a back-and-forth over issues of his opponent’s choosing. “What we can’t let happen in the next few weeks is let this primary turn into a campaign of negative attacks,” he told reporters in Los Angeles around the time Sanders spoke in Vermont. “The only thing that will do is help Donald Trump.” 

There are clear echoes from Biden of Clinton’s messaging after Super Tuesday four years ago. In an interview that aired this morning on NBC’s “Today” show, Biden said “it’s ridiculous” for Sanders to say that “the establishment” was responsible for his wins on Super Tuesday. “You got beaten by overwhelming support I have from the African American community, Bernie,” said Biden. “You got beaten because of suburban women, Bernie. You got beaten because of the middle-class, hardworking folks out there, Bernie. You've raised a lot more money than I have, Bernie.”

Meanwhile, members of the Democratic establishment continue to endorse Biden. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer became the latest to jump on the Biden bandwagon this morning. She delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union last month and sometimes gets mentioned as a possible running mate. Biden also rolled out support this morning from Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), one of the House impeachment managers, as well as Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger and David Trone, both Maryland Democrats.

Biden spent most of the past year focused on President Trump in his public comments. In recent weeks, he pivoted to present himself as the Democratic Party’s best alternative to stop Sanders from securing the nomination. Now that he’s essentially won that argument, Biden shifted back toward the Trump-focused message and seems intent to ignore Sanders’s attacks as much as possible while issuing vague calls for the party to unify. “Rhetorical question,” Biden said on the “Today” show, “have you ever, ever seen a sitting president get so involved in a Democratic primary and focus so much attention on not wanting a single person, me, to become the nominee?” 

During a fundraiser last night in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, Biden never referred to Sanders’s challenge during 20 minutes of remarks. Speaking to 350 people in a former studio executive’s backyard – Leonardo DiCaprio and his mother were in the crowd – he reminisced instead on the accomplishments of Barack Obama’s administration, including Obamacare, the auto industry bailout and the Paris climate accord. He remembered how bad the economy was when they took power in 2009. “Everything but locusts landed on his desk,” Biden said. Suggesting that Sanders’s attacks were on his mind, Biden mused as an aside at one point about his support for raising Social Security benefits for people over 85.

A third commercial released by Sanders on Wednesday features audio of Obama praising him in 2016 and footage of the two men walking chummily together along the White House colonnade. Asked about the ad, Sanders acknowledged that he and Obama aren’t best friends but added that they “talk every now and then.” Sanders said he signed off on the commercial to clear up “a lot of dishonesty” about his relationship with Obama, an apparent reference to news reports that he considered launching a primary challenge against the then-president in 2012.

Some of Warren’s aides privately hoped she would stay in the race through the Phoenix debate. The former high school debate state champion excelled in that format and raised money after recent strong performances. But she received only 28 of the 1,338 delegates that were available on Tuesday, finishing third in Massachusetts (which she represents in the Senate) and fourth in Oklahoma (where she grew up), although that number may rise slightly from the Golden State.

As she prepared to suspend her campaign, top surrogates and allies of Warren and Sanders started preliminary discussions about ways their two camps could unite and push a common liberal agenda. Annie Linskey and Sean Sullivan reported that these conversations largely involved members of Congress who back Sanders reaching out to those in Warren's camp to explore the prospect that she might endorse him. But Warren associates and Biden’s camp were also talking about a potential endorsement.

“It is not clear that Warren would immediately — or ever — back Sanders,” Annie and Sean report. “She stayed on the sidelines during the 2016 Democratic primary … eventually throwing her support to Clinton and hoping to be selected as her running mate. Warren also met with Biden in 2015 as he was considering a presidential bid of his own. At the time Biden floated the idea that they could join forces on the same ticket, but soon he decided not to challenge Clinton.”

A silver lining of Sanders’s continuing attacks could be that Biden looks more moderate, which might work to his advantage in a general election match-up against Trump. It certainly makes it harder for the GOP to portray Biden as some kind of crypto socialist.

Sanders was candid during his news conference in Burlington about his failure to bring new voters into the process the way he needs. “I will be honest with you: We have not done as well in bringing young people into the political process,” he told reporters. “It is not easy.”

In some parts of the Sanders orbit, there have been private discussions about how to reassure Democrats,” Sean Sullivan and Bob Costa report. “Some close Sanders allies believe the distance between the Sanders movement and the party have caused broader issues, especially when Biden is portraying himself as a unifier. … As Sanders spoke in Vermont on Wednesday afternoon, a handful of his prominent supporters quietly connected by phone and text message … In these discussions, some debated whether Sanders's anti-establishment message was enough. ‘We've got to be ready for when the party gets cold feet on Biden and looks to us,’ one of the Democrats said. ‘We can't just keep running the same playbook again and again.’ A second … added that there are some leading liberals in Sanders's orbit who would like to see ‘less Michael Moore and the Squad’ on the campaign trail.”

It’s a small consolation for Warren, but she outlasted Bloomberg in the race after torpedoing his candidacy during the Las Vegas debate. That’s a moral victory of sorts for Warren, who ran as a populist, just as it was for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) when she stayed in the race half a day longer than Pete Buttigieg, whose success in the race as the former mayor of a small town deeply annoyed her because she didn’t think a woman with his same profile would have made it that far.

A billion-dollar question: How much does Bloomberg now help Biden in the upcoming primaries? “Bloomberg has pledged to employ large field staffs in six swing states in the general election, even though he is no longer a candidate. The billionaire’s data operation, Hawkfish, will also continue operating to elect Democrats up and down the ballot,” Matt Viser and Amy Wang report. “Bloomberg’s aides, however, have not announced whether they will take out ads in the primary campaign to help Biden or whether Bloomberg campaign staffers in upcoming primary states will work for Biden’s nomination. Campaign finance rules generally give self-funded campaigns significant leeway to spend money, even if the funds support other candidates. Bloomberg also has the option of renaming or rehiring his staff as part of a separate independent group to help Biden.”

Biden is considering whether to ask for Secret Service protection.

The campaign began privately deliberating whether to formally request Secret Service protection for the candidate after protesters rushed the stage at his Tuesday night event in Los Angeles in what experts called a major security breach. “Both Biden and [Sanders] rely on private security firms to handle their public appearances, which is unusual this late in a presidential campaign cycle in comparison with 2016, 2012 and 2008,” David Nakamura and Carol Leonnig report. “Campaigns must request protection from the DHS, and a bipartisan congressional advisory committee — led by the Senate majority leader, currently Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — helps review the request before the DHS secretary makes a decision. Outsourcing security to the federal government can be a boon for cash-strapped campaigns and also bestow a heightened legitimacy on candidates. But some candidates in past presidential campaign cycles have tried to hold off over concerns that a large security entourage could hamper their ability to interact more directly with supporters.” Sanders had protection for several months during the 2016 primaries, but his campaign did not immediately respond to questions on the subject.

Gov. Steve Bullock is expected to run for Senate in Montana.

In a recruiting coup for national Democrats, the former presidential candidate is telling people that “he is now inclined to run” against Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the New York Times reports. “Bullock has only a few days to finalize his decision: The filing deadline to run in Montana is Monday.”

A former prisoner of Cuba said Sanders asked him “what’s so wrong” with the country. 

During a one-hour meeting in 2014, Sanders told American prisoner Alan Gross, who was jailed by the communist regime for five years, that he didn't understand why others criticized Cuba, Gross alleged in an interview with NPR: “He said, quote: 'I don't know what's so wrong with this country.'" Sanders's campaign declined to comment about the meeting with Gross, who said two other senators were present. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he did not recall the discussion. A source close to former senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) told NPR she remembers Sanders seemed to disregard the meeting with Gross and that an uncomfortable exchange occurred, but she did not recall the exact remark.

Female activists are setting their sights on the No. 2 spot. 

“They’re insisting that a woman — specifically a woman of color — be the running mate for whichever white man will probably be challenging Trump in November,” the 19th reports. “Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) said she hears from voters nationwide who want a black woman as vice president. She said such a pick is ‘the only chance the Democratic Party has to win the presidency and to win down ballot.’”

The coronavirus

The House passed an $8.3 billion package, as the U.S. death toll reached 11.  

The Senate could act on the measure to fund the coronavirus response as soon as today. “Trump is expected to sign the legislation, which is more than triple the size of the White House’s budget request from last week," Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis report. "The vote in the House was 415-2. … The political deal helped push financial markets to surge on Wednesday.” The two “no” votes came from GOP Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Ken Buck (Colo.), who argued that the bill’s spending levels were excessive. “The package includes more than $3 billion for research and development on vaccines, therapeutics and other treatments, as well as $2.2 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support the response from federal, state, and local public health agencies, including for lab testing and infection control. Other parts of the deal include close to $1 billion for medical supplies, health-care preparedness and community health centers, among other things. Also included is $1 billion in loan subsidies for small businesses … Some 85 percent of the money in the bill would be spent domestically, but there is also $1.25 billion for the State Department to assist in battling the spread of the coronavirus overseas. This would include evacuation expenses and humanitarian aid, among other things.”

Expanded coronavirus testing may overwhelm lab capacity, experts say. 

“A day after Vice President Pence touted a new policy allowing ‘any American’ to be tested for the novel coronavirus with a doctor’s order … Health experts warned the action might inadvertently send the wrong message, prompting a surge in demand for tests from people with mild symptoms who should simply stay home until they recover. They also noted that laboratory capacity for virus testing, while on the rise, is still lagging. Tests that can be done in doctor’s offices don’t exist,” Amy Goldstein, Carolyn Johnson, Lena Sun and Laurie McGinley report. “Sixty public health labs are now running the just-fixed CDC test. In the next several days and weeks, testing capacity is expected to increase as more labs come online and private companies ship thousands of test kits. Pence’s announcement took many officials at [HHS] and the CDC by surprise, according to an HHS official.”

In New York, the virus spread quickly from a man to his family to a neighbor to friends. 

“By Wednesday afternoon, another friend, his wife and three of their children were also infected,” Ben Guarino, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Paul Schwartzmann report. “In the span of 48 hours, what began as one family’s medical crisis had spiraled well beyond their Westchester County home, shuttering Jewish schools and synagogues and crystallizing the virus’s power to propel anxiety across a region that is among the nation’s most densely populated.” 

Nearly 300 million kids are out of school right now. So far, 11 countries, plus Hong Kong and Macao, have shut down all schools to stop the spread of the virus. (Valerie Strauss)

America’s health system is showing why it’s not ready for a pandemic. 

“Ventilators and intensive care units, necessary to keep the most acutely ill patients alive, are largely limited to larger hospitals and academic medical centers in cities. … Nationwide, worries are growing about a lack of hospital beds to quarantine and treat infected patients. Major medical centers are typically full even without a flood of coronavirus patients,” Christopher Rowland and Peter Whoriskey report. “Despite weeks of preparations, health planners continue to fret about shortages of masks and gowns for hospital staff, as well as lifesaving mechanical respirators for patients with severe cases of the disease. … Budget-conscious health systems do not maintain large volumes of reserve supplies just for the possibility of a pandemic, said William Jaquis, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. That leaves the system vulnerable. … Federal funding for emergency preparedness in health care has been in a slow, steady decline for more than 15 years.” 

Coronavirus anxiety is everywhere, and there is no cure. 

“Last week, you pressed elevator buttons with abandon. You weren’t afraid of the free weights in the gym. You washed your hands for barely enough time to say ‘Happy Birthday’ once, let alone sing it twice. How bold are you now?” Maura Judkis and Avi Selk write. “Coronavirus anxiety has outpaced the virus itself. … Nikhil Merchant, 38, has taken to meticulously wiping down the treadmill at his suburban Los Angeles gym before he uses it. ‘Your senses are heightened to kind of superimpose germs sitting on that machine,’ he says. Merchant had completed the ritual on Monday and was about to begin his run when he spotted a wad of chewing gum in the treadmill’s cellphone pocket and fled the gym in­ over­whelming mysophobic disgust. … Suspicion of treadmills and elevators mutates into suspicion of fellow humans: Are other people washing their hands for two Happy Birthdays? How much do I really know about the habits and histories all these friends and co-workers and strangers who are touching all the things I’m touching right before I forget not to touch my face?”

Quote of the day

“I haven’t touched my face in weeks. It’s been weeks. I miss it,” Trump said during a White House update on the coronavirus response. (JM Rieger)

The virus spread from China. Now, China doesn’t want the world to spread it back. 

“Health authorities in the prosperous province of Zhejiang had finally lowered the alert level from one to two after six weeks, satisfied their draconian measures to contain the novel coronavirus had worked,” Anna Fifield reports. “Then Wang, a 31-year-old waitress who had been working in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, came home to Qingtian county, west of the city of Wenzhou. … Traveling with five others from the same restaurant, she changed planes in Moscow and took off for Shanghai. … When Wang, whom authorities have identified only by her family name, arrived in China, she was immediately put into quarantine. On Sunday, she tested positive for the [virus] … Seven others who worked in the Bergamo restaurant and flew back home were diagnosed this week, the Qingtian government said. This is China’s new coronavirus challenge.”

Conspiracy theorists claim the U.S. is to blame for the virus. China is happy to encourage them. “In recent days, run-of-the-mill mockery of the White House has taken a darker turn as the Chinese Internet became inundated by the theory, subtly stoked by the Chinese government, that the coronavirus originated in the United States. The U.S. government, one version of the theory goes, has been covering up mounting cases, and perhaps thousands of deaths, by classifying them as regular flu,” Gerry Shih reports.

Domestic developments that shouldn't be overlooked

John Roberts released a statement criticizing Chuck Schumer. 

The chief justice issued a rare rebuke of a sitting member of Congress, chastising the Senate’s top Democrat for saying at a rally outside the Supreme Court that Trump’s two nominees to the court would “pay the price” if they vote against abortion rights. “Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous,” Roberts said. “All members of the court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.” Schumer, speaking as the Supreme Court heard arguments in an important abortion case from Louisiana, called out Brett  M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch by name: “I want to tell you, Gorsuch; I want to tell you, Kavanaugh: You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”

“The GOP denounced Schumer and criticized the media for what they said was a lack of outrage,” Robert Barnes and Colby Itkowitz report. “Democrats demanded to know why Roberts had not spoken out last week when Trump singled out liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor for criticism, or why he did not defend the federal judge Trump denounced for her oversight of the trial of the president’s friend Roger Stone. The episode underscored the partisan politics that have engulfed the fight over the judiciary, which is supposed to be the nonpartisan branch of the government.”

With Roe v. Wade in jeopardy, the Louisiana case will probably come down to Roberts. 

“The court’s four liberals appeared convinced that the Louisiana law at issue, requiring admitting privileges at nearby hospitals for abortion-clinic doctors, is identical to one from Texas that the Supreme Court struck down four years ago. That appeared to leave Roberts, now at the court’s ideological center, holding the deciding vote,” Barnes and Ann Marimow report. “As the case was argued, he asked a variation of the same question to all three lawyers addressing the justices: Should the court undertake a fact-dependent, state-by-state analysis when reviewing such restrictions? That could indicate he felt he could distinguish Louisiana’s law from the Texas statute. Or it could mean he agreed with challengers that similar laws were doomed because of the court’s precedent from 2016. Roberts, a dissenter in the Texas case, did not indicate what he believed was the proper answer. …  Among Wednesday’s spectators was Roberts’s wife, Jane Roberts, who before the chief justice joined the court was legal counsel for Feminists for Life of America, a group that opposes abortion.”

The FBI fell short in assessing homegrown terror threats. 

“In a 41-page report, Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote that while the bureau seemed to recognize its failings, it had ‘not taken sufficient action’ to fix the problems,” Matt Zapotosky reports. “Horowitz noted that in the more than 20 homegrown terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, several suspects had been previously assessed by the bureau as a potential threat but not fully investigated.” 

A noose was found on the gunman’s locker at a Milwaukee Coors facility years before his shooting rampage there last week. “Current and former employees of the Molson Coors brewery here say there is a long-held culture of racism, including racist cartoons placed in workspaces, the n-word scrawled in break rooms and bathrooms and nooses hung at the facility — one on the locker of an employee who killed five co-workers there last week,” Annie Gowen and Katie Zezima report. While police have not provided a motive for the Feb. 26 rampage, they said in a statement that, based on a preliminary investigation, neither race nor racism played a role in the shooting. 

A Pentagon contract linguist was charged with espionage.

The woman, assigned to a U.S. Special Operations task force in Iraq, was charged with turning over the names of human informants and other classified data to a Lebanese man with ties to the militant group Hezbollah. “The Justice Department said Mariam Taha Thompson, 61, formerly of Rochester, Minn., was charged with one count of conspiracy and one count of delivering defense information to aid a foreign government. Prosecutors alleged that she passed the information to a man in whom she had a romantic interest,” Spencer Hsu reports. “Thompson appeared in federal court in Washington on Wednesday. The FBI arrested her Feb. 27 at a U.S. military facility in Irbil, Iraq, where she worked."

A federal judge ordered attorneys for 9/11 victims to detail threats allegedly made against potential witnesses in a lawsuit targeting Saudi Arabia. The victims' attorneys have argued they need to protect the identities of potential witnesses, pointing to the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi as an example of the kind of danger faced by those who speak out against the regime in Riyadh, Shayna Jacobs reports.

Social media speed read

Trump mocked Bloomberg for dropping out of the race, and Bloomberg responded with a clip from “Star Wars”:

Trump, saying the quiet part out loud, admitted that he opposes Jeff Sessions because he didn't take control of the Russia probe:

Washington state asked voters not to lick envelopes to mail in their ballots, in light of the coronavirus: 

And Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wore this to the House floor as members voted on the coronavirus spending bill: 

Videos of the day

“Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek provided an inspiring update a year after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis:

Seth Meyers thinks Trump is lying when he claims that he hasn’t touched his face in weeks: 

Sam Bee joked that Democrats now face a close race between Sanders, Biden and the coronavirus: