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On The Hill

The first two Muslim-American women in Congress are forcing the Democratic Party to confront a growing call from some of their younger members to take a more progressive position on Middle Eastern politics, especially on the creation of a Palestinian state.

And one of them debuted yesterday at her first hearing as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urging lawmakers to hold Saudi Arabia to the same standards on human rights as other countries. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), 35 and a Somali refugee, sought the big platform because of her unique background and experiences -- she's intent on showcasing human-rights abuses around the world and how to counteract them in the Trump era.

But her colleagues are focusing on something else: Omar's criticisms of Israel, some of her controversial tweets and her support of the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the country over its occupation of the West Bank. The GOP has seized on comments by Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the other Muslim-American woman elected in 2018, as anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic, charges the two women deny. It has ignited a public debate within the Democratic Party between staunch defenders of Israel and a growing band of young and increasingly pro-Palestinian progressives. Democratic strategists and party insiders expect the issue to morph into an even bigger topic of debate beyond the halls of the Capitol to the 2020 primary.  

  • New litmus test: On Wednesday, the Senate passed a Middle East bill rebuking President Trump's withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, along with a controversial measure to allow states and local governments to punish corporations that boycott, divest, or sanction Israel.
  • The bill passed with by an overwhelming margin, but the majority of Democratic senators mulling a presidential run voted against it, with the exception of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) 
  • “I think that vote shows that the old-school playbook of American politics is really being rewritten,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a progressive group that supports a two-state solution, told Power Up. “In prior campaign cycles, if the government of Israel and AIPAC [ the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] had gotten behind a bill like that, it would have earned wall-to-wall support from presidential candidates from the Democratic Party. But here, all of the presidential candidates but one, actually, voted against it. And that’s a major change.”
  • 2020 prep: Ben-Ami added that J Street has been meeting with 2020 Democratic candidates to help them find ways to support both Israeli security measures and Palestinian rights. 
  • “There will be discussion about what are we doing in Saudi Arabia with regards to Yemen,” Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told us. “So how do we reconcile that with our long-standing position with Israel given the human rights crisis? It’s going to be very hard for contenders in 2020 to go before the base and say we shouldn't change anything with our relationship with Israel and we will have to keep looking the other way with Palestinian territories. I don't think that’s going to fly,” he added. 
  • Not to mention: The creation of a pro-Israel group, first reported by the New York Times's Jonathan Martin, by veteran Democrats “alarmed by the party’s drift from its long-standing alignment with Israel.” The group is designed to provide a counterweight to progressive candidates who attempt to oust pro-Israel Democrats from the left. (See here). 

However, the shift away from unconditional support for Israel has been simmering among the Democratic rank-and-file. A Pew poll last year showed a party divided: 27 percent of Democrats sympathized more with Israelis on the issue of Middle Eastern politics compared to 25 percent who sympathized more with Palestinians. Millennials who support Israel were an even smaller percentage. 

  • The Times's Sheryl Gay Stolberg illuminated the division last week through her reporting on the transition of Tlaib and Omar as groundbreaking “symbols of diversity” to “the most embattled members of the Democratic House majority.” 
  • “When Ms. Omar was named to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, its chairman, Representative Eliot Engel of New York, told her privately that he would not allow some of her 'particularly hurtful' remarks to be 'swept under the rug,'" Engel told Stolberg. 

Omar's camp sought to tamp down the tensions between the freshman congresswoman and Engel, though, and said that Republicans have seized on the growing range of views on Israel for their political purposes. 

  • Omar: “As someone who has seen firsthand the havoc wreaked by war, I look forward to serving on the committee responsible for overseeing our country’s actions abroad,” Omar said in a statement to Power Up. “Everything we do as a committee and as a country should be guided by creating a more peaceful and just world — and upholding human rights globally. There are several ways we can do that immediately: we can investigate how foreign governments and their lobbyists have violated our laws, we can rein in arms sales to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, and we can use the committee’s human rights jurisdiction to hold the President accountable for deaths in detention centers on his watch. I’ve had fruitful discussions with the Chairman and other committee members about these priorities and I look forward to making progress on these goals.”

Munayyer pointed to Omar's Twitter spat with Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who is Jewish and last week posted a hateful and anti-Semitic voicemail he received in which he tagged Omar. Munnayer said that served as an example of "weaponizing anti-Semitism to advance Islamophobia . . . One of the things happening right now is an effort to piggy-back on real racism and sexism that exists in our country and to use that not just to define Ilhan and Rashida but by association, define the issues they stand for as marginal and extreme.” 

  • Zeldin tweeted: “This new VM just came into my office,” Zeldin tweeted. “This is just another day in my world as an American Jew in Congress. Would love to know what part of this hate filled, anti-Semitic rant you disagree with?” 
  • Omar responded: “This is heinous and hateful,” Omar responded. “I too am flooded with bigoted voice mails and calls every day. Maybe we could meet and share notes on how to fight religious discrimination of all kinds? Maybe over Somali tea, in your old office which I happen to be in now.”
  • “I do think the Israel issue is being weaponized,” Ben-Ami told us. “It’s being turned into a political wedge instead of a serious policy issue. Criticism of Israel is not the same as anti-Semitism, and the effort to make any criticism out to be anti-Semitism does a disservice to the reality of anti-Semitism.”
  • As for the tea summit between Zeldin and Omar, no meeting has been confirmed yet. 
 

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The People

THE DOSSIER: It started at The Russia House, a Dupont Circle restaurant known for it's vodka and caviar, obviously. My colleagues Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger write in a fresh report out this morning that this D.C. restaurant was where Sergei Millian, a Belarusan-born businessman, and one-time Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulous got together. After their man-date, Millian and the young aide stayed in touch. “The interactions between the two men — the extent of which have not been reported previously — show how Millian, a self-described real estate developer who served as an unwitting source of information for former British spy Christopher Steele, was in closer proximity to Trump's world than previously known,” Helderman and Hamburger report. 

  • As Millian worked Papadopoulos in 2016, he “also offered to serve as a conduit to the Trump campaign for a Belarusan author in Florida with connections to the Russian government, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post. The author, Mikhail Morgulis, who said he never ended up hearing from anyone in the campaign, later claimed that he rallied Russian Americans to back Trump. The new details deepen the persistent mystery surrounding Millian, two years after he was identified as one of the unnamed sources in a campaign dossier Steele compiled for Democrats about Trump's ties to Russia.”

  • More investigations: Millian has denied being a source for Steele's dossier and the House and Senate Intelligence committees have tried to interview him. But “House Democrats said that Millian was unwilling to appear before their panel without being granted immunity and they called on Republicans to subpoena him. Now back in majority control, House Democrats said they plan to renew efforts to obtain his testimony.”

  • Key: “The Post has previously reported that in his research reports, Steele described Millian . . . as a “close associate of Trump” who had given a 'compatriot' information in confidence in late July 2016. The information attributed to Millian included the dossier's most prurient claim: that Trump cavorted with prostitutes in Moscow. The document also cited Millian as a source for the assertion that a “well developed conspiracy of cooperation” existed between the Trump campaign and Russian leaders.”

The Investigations

THREAT, WHAT THREAT? One day after Trump told Democrats they needed to choose between partisan oversight investigations and making deals, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced his House Intelligence panel is reopening its probe into whether the president or his associates had improper ties with Russia during the 2016 campaign.

Schiff announced a five-point plan to examine "'credible reports of money laundering and financial compromise'” involving the businesses of President Trump and those closest to him,” according to my colleague Karoun Demirjian. He alleged the GOP-led panel overlooked key evidence when it dug into Russia's interference in the last Congress.

  • Key: “The President’s actions and posture toward Russia during the campaign, transition, and administration have only heightened fears of foreign financial or other leverage over President Trump and underscore the need to determine whether he or those in his administration have acted in service of foreign interests since taking office,” Schiff said in a statement.
  • Trump's response: “Under what basis would he do that? He has no basis to do that,” the president said of the fresh probe. “No other politician has to go through that. It's called presidential harassment. And it’s unfortunate. And it really does hurt our country.”
  • The first step: Intelligence panel members voted unanimously yesterday to release their previous transcripts of interviews from over 50 witnesses, including those closes to Trump like Jared Kushner, Hope Hicks, etc., to Robert Mueller's team. 
  • Why? “Democrats have long questioned whether some witnesses lied to lawmakers during those interviews, and they plan to make obstruction of justice another focus of their planned probe,” Demirjian reports.
  • The significance: “This is important because prosecutors need an official copy of a transcript to prosecute a defendant with perjury in a proceeding,” Joyce Alene, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of Alabama, tweeted
  • Delay: Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime fixer, is now scheduled to testify privately before the intel committee on Feb. 28.
  • And Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C) sat down for a rare interview with CBS on his panel's own probe of Russian interference, saying the committee's final report may be so highly classified that key portions can't be made public: "Many of the connections that we've made are the direct result of intelligence products," he said. "I think it's safe to say we've interviewed people that I don't even know if the special counsel knows about them — but you've got to remember that we're on a totally separate path than what they are."

The bigger picture: Trump is lashing out as Democratic investigations on the Hill start in earnest. 

  • “With Thursday hearings scheduled on presidential tax returns and family separations at the Mexican border, and a Friday session to question acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, the lights are about to shine brightly on a president who has, until now, faced little examination from a Republican Congress,” my colleagues Mike DeBonis and Seung Min Kim report.
  • “We’re going to do our homework first,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

LOL: 

Then this morning from Trump:

Outside the Beltway

COMING SOON TO YOUR STREAMING SERVICE: The saga of who will replace Ralph Northam as Virginia governor, presuming the Democrat decides to resign at some point after apologizing and then denying he appeared in a racist image from his 1984 medical school yearbook. The possibility emerged yesterday that Northam's replacement could somehow end up being a Republican — House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (who ended up in his post because of a coin toss, my colleague Philip Bump reminds us.)

Cox is third in line to the governorship and would only assume the state's top job IF:

  • Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax isn't disqualified by allegations of sexual assault by Vanessa Tyson, who released a public statement for the first time yesterday. “What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault,” said Tyson, a fellow at Stanford University and associate professor at Scripps College. Tyson said that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. “I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” Tyson said.
  • Fairfax denies the allegations. Tyson has hired the D.C. law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks, the same legal team that represented Christine Blasey Ford, Samantha Schmidt, Fenit Nerappil and Laura Vozzella report.
  • P.S.: Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) was made aware of the sexual assault allegation against Fairfax a year ago, according to ABC News's Kaitlyn Folmer and John Verhovek. 
  • If Northam steps down and Fairfax doesn't replace him, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) is up next. But Herring admitted yesterday he dressed in brown makeup as rapper Kurtis Blow in 1980 at a college party at the age of 18. “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it,” Herring said a statement. “But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

Virginia Republicans, who suffered a drubbing in the 2018 elections, saw some light in their long tunnel:

  • “The Democratic Party of Virginia was engulfed in a full-blown political crisis Wednesday as a series of scandals tarnished the commonwealth’s three top Democratic leaders and threatened to reverse the historic gains the party has achieved in the state in recent years,” wrote The Post's Paul Schwartzman.
  • The key quote: “'This is just devastating,'” said Ben Tribbett, a Fairfax-based Democratic strategist. 'After a nuclear bomb goes off, it’s not always better to be a survivor. We look terrible, and everyone knows it. There’s no scenario where things get fixed. Humpty Dumpty doesn’t get put back together again.'”
  • The other key quote: “'What was a slow-moving train wreck is now like a bullet-train wreck,' said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist and a veteran of numerous Virginia political wars. 'The reports of Republicans’ demise in the commonwealth of Virginia have been greatly exaggerated.'”

And from one new female Democratic congresswoman: 

In the Media

What we're reading:

Viral

Thinking of you, Dingell fam.