Happy Friday, people! We’re taking a week off but will be back with you on March 2 — just in time for Super Tuesday. Good night and good luck until then. Thanks for waking up with us.
BREAKING FROM THE STATE DEPARTMENT: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the U.S. has reached “an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence across Afghanistan.” Full statement here.
After decades of conflict, we have come to an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence across #Afghanistan. This is an important step on a long road to peace, and I call on all Afghans to seize this opportunity.— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) February 21, 2020
At The White House
ACQUITTAL SETS YOU FREE?: It was a comparison that President Trump couldn't resist.
The president, who was acquitted on both charges of impeachment just 16 days ago, commiserated with former prisoners about having “those days” when the road ahead appears tough.
“I mean, I didn’t do anything wrong, and they impeached me a few weeks ago,” he said at a prison graduation yesterday ceremony in Las Vegas.
Now that he's no longer shackled by the prospect of being removed from office, an emboldened Trump has seemingly made the most of the two weeks following his acquittal. He's removed perceived enemies while installing political loyalists to key posts. His unabashed public commentary on criminal matters threw the Justice Department into crisis. He's taken steps to solidify his role as what he calls “the chief law enforcement officer of this country.”
- By the numbers: 26 percent of Americans believe that Trump's behavior has changed for the worse since his acquittal, while only 9 percent believe it's changed for the better, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week.
- Trump is unlikely to reverse course: His popularity is toward the peak of his presidency, polling an average of 46 percent among Americans, according to RealClearPolitics.
We compiled a timeline on Trump's moves to consolidate power — and the results.
The latest details came yesterday, as Stone got a shorter sentence: “A federal judge on Thursday sentenced Roger Stone, President Trump’s longtime friend and political adviser, to serve three years and four months in prison for impeding a congressional investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” Rachel Weiner, Matt Zapotosky, Tom Jackman and Devlin Barrett report.
- More news may be coming: “The penalty from U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson comes after weeks of infighting over the politically charged case that threw the Justice Department into crisis, and it is likely not to be the final word. Even before the sentencing hearing began, Trump seemed to suggest on Twitter that he might pardon Stone.”
- Pardon hints aside, this is a big difference: “The initial team of four career prosecutors recommended that Jackson impose a term of seven to nine years, only to see Trump tweet about the matter and Barr personally intervene. All four prosecutors then quit the case — with one leaving the government entirely — and their replacements filed a new recommendation suggesting that three to four years was ‘more typical’ in cases like Stone’s.”
And we found out that loyalty was a factor in Trump's decision to replace his acting director of national intelligence: It was Trump's fury at an intelligence community analysis that Russia wants to see him reelected in 2020 that led him to replace Joseph Maguire with Richard Grenell, a vocal Trump backer and U.S. ambassador to Germany.
- Trump “grew angry” at Maguire, a career official respected by the intelligence rank and file, during a meeting in the Oval Office last week over “seeing Maguire and his staff as disloyal for speaking to Congress about Russia’s perceived preference. The intelligence official’s analysis and Trump’s furious response ruined Maguire’s chances of becoming the permanent intelligence chief,” according to our colleagues Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, and Josh Dawsey.
- “The day after the Feb. 13 briefing to lawmakers, [Trump] berated [Maguire] for allowing it to take place, people familiar with the exchange said. [Trump] cited the presence in the briefing of [Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)] who led the impeachment proceedings against him, as a particular irritant,” the New York Times's Adam Goldman, Julian Barnes, Maggie Haberman and Nick Fandos report.
- Trump told reporters he was considering Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), another fierce Trump defender, as one option for his permanent DNI, which requires Senate confirmation, our colleague Ashley Parker reported from Air Force One.
Here's what happened the rest of the month, since he was acquitted on February 5:
February 6: Trump immediately declares he “did nothing wrong” at his post-acquittal celebration at the White House. Trump “[veered] between vitriolic and triumphant in a meandering speech that stretched past an hour, [he] sounded off against ‘vicious and mean’ Democrats and ‘dirty cops’ at the FBI, and he individually acknowledged Republican lawmakers he described as ‘great warriors’ for his cause,” our colleagues Toluse Olorunnipa and Mike DeBonis reported.
February 7: “[Trump] punished two witnesses who testified in the investigation that led to his impeachment, removing them from their posts in an apparent campaign to exact retribution on his perceived enemies in the wake of his acquittal in the Senate this week,” our colleagues Toluse Olorunnipa, Tom Hamburger, Josh Dawsey, and Greg Miller reported.
- “The White House ousted Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from his post on the National Security Council and recalled U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, moves that were quickly condemned as vindictive and an attempt to intimidate government officials who speak out against Trump.”
- “Vindman’s twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, was also removed from his job at the National Security Council, where he worked as a lawyer, and was escorted off the grounds,” our colleagues wrote.
- “I’m not happy with him,” Trump said before Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's firing. “You think I’m supposed to be happy with him? I’m not.”
February 11: Trump lashed out at Justice Department over Stone. Trump took an aggressive position against what he called prosecutors' “ridiculous” and “unfair” recommendation for Stone's sentence in a series of tweets.
“Hours later, a senior Justice Department official claimed department leadership was ‘shocked’ at the recommendation and would move to undo it,” our colleagues Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report. Attorney General William P. Barr and the Justice department soon after intervened in Stone's sentencing, saying the seven to nine year recommendation “would not be appropriate.”
- Fallout from Trump's rage tweets: “All four career prosecutors moved to withdraw from the case, with one quitting the government entirely,” per Matt and Devlin.
- “The sudden and dramatic moves came after prosecutors and their superiors had argued for days over the appropriate penalty for Stone, and exposed what some career Justice Department employees say is a continuing pattern of the historically independent law enforcement institution being bent to Trump’s political will.”
- Don't forget about Jessie K. Liu: “Almost simultaneously, Trump decided to revoke the nomination to a top Treasury Department post of his former U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, who had supervised the Stone case when it went to trial,” Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett, Ann Marimow and Spencer Hsu reported.
- Trump also attacked U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, the unflappable judge in the Stone trial, during his Twitter tirade, implying that “Jackson harbored some broad bias, linking the Stone case to her role in the sentencing of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and her dismissal of a lawsuit against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton related to Benghazi, Libya,” our colleague Allyson Chiu reported.
Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought. Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted. Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2020
February 13: Barr issues extraordinary rebuke of Trump on ABC News. Though the attorney general said Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case” he should stop weighing in on criminal matters because his tweets “make it impossible for me to do my job.”
- The White House indicates Trump won't accept limits on his tweets: “The President wasn’t bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions. President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country, including the fake news. The President has full faith and confidence in Attorney General Barr to do his job and uphold the law,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.
February 13: Trump brings back two confidants — Hope Hicks and John McEntee — who left under scrutiny earlier in the administration.
- McEntee was forced out of the White House in 2018 “because an investigation found he was a frequent gambler whose habit posed a security risk, two people familiar with his departure said at the time,” our colleague Josh Dawsey reported.
- Yet Trump, “infuriated over what he believes are so many people around him who are not loyal, and that some 2016 campaign aides have not been able to get jobs,” is placing McEntee as the head of presidential personnel — the White House Office charged with vetting new appointees.
- Trump has instructed McEntee to install more loyalists in government posts.
February 13: Trump openly admitted in a podcast interview with journalist Geraldo Rivera “to sending his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani to Ukraine to find damaging information about his political opponents, even though he strongly denied it during the impeachment inquiry,” per CNN's Marshall Cohen.
- Rivera asked: “Was it strange to send Rudolph W. Giuliani to Ukraine, your personal lawyer? Are you sorry you did that?" Trump responded: “No, not at all” and praised Giuliani as a “crime fighter.”
- “So when you tell me, why did I use Rudy, and one of the things about Rudy, number one, he was the best prosecutor, you know, one of the best prosecutors, and the best mayor,” Trump said. “But also, other presidents had them. FDR had a lawyer who was practically, you know, was totally involved with government. Eisenhower had a lawyer. They all had lawyers.”
February 18: Trump circumvented Justice department process to grant executive clemency to a group of 11 people “that included several political allies and others convicted of corruption, lying and fraud,” our colleagues Toluse and Beth Reinhard reported.
- Trump told reporters the pardons were based on “the recommendations of people that know them”: “Among the recipients of Trump’s largesse was Rod R. Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who was convicted on corruption charges in 2011 related to trying to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat. His sentence was commuted. Financier Michael Milken, who was charged with insider trading in the 1980s, and Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner jailed on eight felony charges, including tax fraud, were pardoned,” per Toluse and Beth.
- “Legal experts said that by relying on his personal connections rather than the Justice Department’s established review process for finding convicts deserving of clemency, Trump risked politicizing his pardon power.”
February 19: John Rood, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon, was forced to resign this week “at the request of [Trump], according to a copy of his resignation letter,” CNN's Jim Sciutto, Barbara Starr, and Zachary Cohen scooped.
- Rood is “is the latest senior national security official involved in the Ukraine controversy to be forced out following Trump's acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial, but sources told CNN that he broke with the administration on several issues, in addition to the handling of aid to Ukraine, leading to a loss of support from leadership.”
In the Agencies
INSIDE AMERICA'S PIVOTAL MOMENT ON RESPONDING TO THE CORONAVIRUS: Three hundred and twenty-eight weary Americans finally thought they were returning home after being quarantined for weeks on a cruise ship that had the most cases of coronavirus in the world outside of China. It would not be that simple, our colleagues Lena H. Sun, Lenny Bernstein, Shibani Mahtani and Joel Achenbach report.
- Background: The Americans were “aboard the Diamond Princess, the luxury liner where the novel coronavirus had exploded into a shipwide epidemic.” But the State Department had promised not to bring anyone back with the infection, a vow that took on new meaning as tests results showed 14 passengers among those waiting to come home were infected.
The CDC and State face off: “The State Department and a top Trump administration health official wanted to forge ahead,” our colleagues write, as the officials reasoned the plane already had a section of seats “cordoned off with 10-foot-high plastic on all four sides.” “But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagreed, contending they could still spread the virus.”
- Key quote: “It was like the worst nightmare,” a senior U.S. official involved in the decision told our colleagues. “Quite frankly, the alternative could have been pulling grandma out in the pouring rain, and that would have been bad, too.”
- The State Department won: “But unhappy CDC officials demanded to be left out of the news release that explained that infected people were being flown back to the United States — a move that would nearly double the number of known coronavirus cases in this country.”
Why this moment matters: “The tarmac decision was a pivotal moment for U.S. officials improvising their response to a crisis with few precedents and extraordinarily high stakes," our colleagues write. “Efforts to prevent the new pathogen from spreading have revealed the limits of the world’s readiness for an unprecedented public health emergency. In the worst-case scenario, covid-19, a flulike respiratory infection, could become a full-blown global pandemic.”
REID SPEAKS JUST BEFORE CAUCUSES: “Former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid said that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or any presidential candidate should not get the Democratic nomination if they end the primary process in first place but are shy of the requisite majority of delegates,” our colleague Paul Kane reports from Las Vegas.
- Why it matters: During Wednesday's debate, only Sanders agreed that a candidate with a plurality of delegates should be guaranteed to get the nomination. (Notably, Bernie had different views in 2016.)
- Some candidates are already preparing for a fight: “Mike Bloomberg is privately lobbying Democratic Party officials and donors allied with his moderate opponents to flip their allegiance to him — and block [Sanders] — in the event of a brokered national convention,” Politico's David Siders reports.
From Reid: “Here is how I feel about this: I do not think that anybody — Bernie Sanders or anyone else — should simply get the nomination because they have 30 percent of the delegates and no one else has that many,” Reid told PK in an interview in his office at the Bellagio, where he has a post with the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute. “…I do not believe anyone should get the nomination unless they have 50-[percent]-plus-one.”
- Praise for Warren: She's “on fire,” Reid said of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's debate performance. He conceded that the Massachusetts senator, whom he coaxed into politics, might not get a huge surge in Nevada caucuses given that so many people have voted early.
The latest before Saturday: “The number of people who participated in the four-day early voting period here in Nevada approached the total turnout of the 2016 caucuses, a Nevada Democratic Party aide tells CNN,” Dan Merica reports.
- The final number for early voters is expected to be around 70,000: There about 84,000 caucus-goers in 2016 in the state when no early-voting period was offered.
ELSEWHERE ON THE TRAIL:
They're spent: “Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and [Warren] each started the month scraping perilously close to the bottom of their campaign bank accounts, posing an existential threat to their candidacies as the Democratic primary goes national,” Politico's Maggie Severns reports of the latest FEC filings that came in last night.
- Warren cashes in on the debate: The senator's campaign had just $2.3 million left in the bank at start of the month making her debate performance all the more necessary since her campaign said they raised “over $5 million in less than 24 hours — a much-needed influx and her best fundraising day to date,” Politico reports.
- But they're feeling super again: “After being batted around as a boogeyman in the Democratic primaries, super PACs are now fully in play. And January numbers show they serve as a welcome respite,” our colleagues Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy report.
Bloomberg tries to bounce back: “The most expensive political campaign in American history has found itself at a crossroads, with two Mike Bloombergs running for president at the same time,” our colleagues Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey and Michael Kranish report of the post-debate struggle to reconcile the carefully curated former New York flooding every screen in sight versus the billionaire who was bludgeoned in front of the largest audience to watch a debate so far this cycle.
- Bloomberg's tweet about a debate moment that didn't happen raised eyebrows: A deceptively altered video tweeted by Bloomberg “would ‘likely' labeled as manipulated media under new Twitter rules that take effect next month, according to a company spokesperson,” HuffPost's Jesselyn Cook reports. The video changed how the other candidates onstage responded to a question from Bloomberg. (Our fact checking colleagues gave the video the dreaded four Pinocchios)
In the Media
- “This is what they know about Republicans: Tell them ‘yes’ or they will hurt us.”: “How conservatives learned to wield power inside Facebook.” By The Post's Craig Timberg
- The climate fight outside of Washington: “The Oil Industry Is Quietly Winning Local Climate Fights.” By the Atlantic's Robinson Meyer
- Bernie goes Hollywood: “'The culture game matters': Inside the building of Bernie's grassroots celebrity army.” By Vanity Fair's Joe Pompeo