with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Today, we chew on President Biden facing questions about war-making authority. But don’t miss the latest on Donald Trump’s impeachment, Biden’s nominations, and Disney’s Jungle Cruise. Send me interesting local/regional news! And tell your friends to sign up here.

President Biden hasn’t been in office a full week but already faces questions about one of his most solemn duties: When, why and under what circumstances he might send Americans into combat. Some of the most serious pressure is coming from his left, where liberals want him to undertake a dramatic overhaul of the legal underpinnings for most U.S. military actions since 9/11.

On his way out the door, Donald Trump declined to send Congress a public list of U.S. combat deployments abroad and ordered U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan down to 2,500 in each country both issues now on Biden’s plate.

The Delaware Democrat, long an advocate of extricating the United States from Afghanistan, has ordered a potentially consequential “review” of whether the Taliban is keeping its end of a February 2020 agreement calling for a U.S. and NATO withdrawal by May. Implicit in that decision is the possibility that the president could hold off if the Taliban is not.

Biden must decide how much he wants to restore the pre-Trump status quo vs. how much the times call for a new approach.

The president’s national security team is coming together: On Monday night, his pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, took a step closer to confirmation when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported his nomination to the full Senate. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are already at their posts.

And Biden has been working the phones, calling leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has spoken to his counterparts in Afghanistan, Israel, South Korea as well as senior foreign policy officials in France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Biden has already been challenged by escalating tensions between China and Taiwan, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on demonstrations in support of his sharpest domestic critic, Alexei Navalny.

On the home front, one of Biden’s early tests involves what looks like routine paperwork but actually serves the symbolic purpose of acknowledging (some) congressional authority and the need for (some) transparency.

Presidents of both parties have declined to declare explicitly that the War Powers Act is constitutional, yet still complied with the 1973 law’s demand that they send Congress semi-annual reports listing major deployments of combat-ready forces overseas. After stripping his reports of the number of troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, Trump appears to have sent his final report in June 2020 and skipped town without sending an equivalent in December.

Asked Monday whether the new administration would fill the gap, White House press secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped the question, directing reporters to the Pentagon. (The semi-annual report is a letter from the president to the House speaker and president pro tempore of the Senate and originates at the White House).

Psaki doesn't answer on potential future U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In his waning days, Trump reduced levels there and in Iraq down to 2,500 each.

The Biden administration announced its “review” of the nearly 20-year-old war in Afghanistan without much fanfare, tucked inside the formal summary of a telephone call between Sullivan and Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib.

Sullivan “made clear the United States’ intention to review the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, including to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”

The future of the American presence in Afghanistan came up in Blinken and Austin’s confirmation hearings.

“We want to end this so-called forever war. We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism which is what brought us there in the first place,” Blinken testified. “And we have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated.”

Asked whether any troop withdrawal would be based on the conditions on the ground, Blinken replied “that’s correct.” Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is “still a problem,” he said, warning “if we take our eye off that ball there's a risk that it comes back.”

In his testimony, Austin said “this conflict needs to come to, you know, an end. And, you know, we need to see an agreement reached. And in accordance with what the president-elect wants to see, I think we want to see an Afghanistan in the future that does not present a threat to America.”

Perhaps the most interesting and far-reaching test for Biden came in a two-page letter on Jan. 21 from five Democratic House committee leaders who underlined his promise to “end the forever wars.”

To do so, they said, the president would need to take aim at two pieces of legislation: The 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) passed just after 9/11 and the 2002 AUMF that set the stage for the 2003 Iraq invasion. They pressed him to repeal the latter and dramatically rewrite the former, which has been used by three successive presidents of both parties to justify military engagements all over the world “against a continuously expanding list of targetable adversaries.”

It’s a tall order. Barack Obama’s administration backed repealing the 2002 AUMF, and promised to work with Congress to rewrite and repeal its 2001 counterpart. But Obama also said the 2001 AUMF meant he did not need fresh congressional authority to go after the so-called Islamic State. Among lawmakers, meanwhile, a blend of political calculation and legitimate national security concerns the former outweighing the latter  meant a new authorization was dead on arrival.

“It's long past time that we revisit these and review them,” Blinken testified last week. “We did try to do this a few years ago. And it's not easy to get to yes. For some, the porridge is too hot. For others, the porridge is too cold. And can we get a consensus around what's just right?”

What’s happening now

The Pentagon restricted the D.C. National Guard commander’s authority ahead of the Capitol riot. Maj. Gen. William Walker, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, said the Pentagon, by limiting his powers, stopped him from immediately rolling out troops when he received a phone call from the Capitol Police chief warning rioters were about to enter the Capitol, Paul Sonne reports. “All military commanders normally have immediate response authority to protect property, life, and in my case, federal functions — federal property and life,” Walker said. “But in this instance I did not have that authority.”

Marty Baron, The Post’s executive editor, will retire at the end of February. Baron, who has led the newsroom for eight years, significantly expanded our newspaper’s coverage areas, inspired great reporting and grew the number of readers and subscribers to unprecedented levels, The Post’s publisher and CEO Fred Ryan wrote in a letter shared today with employees. During Baron’s tenure, The Post won 10 Pulitzer Prizes and many other accolades. Before The Post, Baron led newsrooms in Miami and Boston over the span of his 45-year career. 

The administration is poised to halt new fossil fuel leasing on federal land and water today. The moratorium would pause new oil and gas auctions on federal land and water as the administration reviews the program, Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni report. The move won’t affect existing leases, meaning that drilling can continue on public land in the West as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. The president also plans on today outlining steps aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and introducing policies that include protecting 30 percent of federal lands and waters by the end of the decade.

Twitter banned MyPillow CEO and Trump ally Mike Lindell. Lindell is the latest in Trump’s circle to lose his privileges on the social media platform for sharing misinformation, Taylor Telford reports. The company said Lindell was “permanently suspended” for repeatedly violating civic integrity policies, though it was not immediately clear which tweets spurred the ban.

The European Union threatened drug companies with legal action if it doesn’t get its vaccines. The E.U. proposed tighter export controls after two manufacturers – AstraZeneca and Pfizer – announced sudden cuts to their supply to member states, Erin Cunningham and Loveday Morris report.

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Earth is losing $1.2 trillion tons of ice each year. It’s going to get worse,” by Chris Mooney and Andrew Freedman: “From the thin ice shield covering most of the Arctic Ocean to the mile-thick mantle of the polar ice sheets, ice losses have soared from about 760 billion tons per year in the 1990s to more than 1.2 trillion tons per year in the 2010s, a new study released Monday shows. That is an increase of more than 60 percent, equating to 28 trillion tons of melted ice in total — and it means that roughly 3 percent of all the extra energy trapped within Earth’s system by climate change has gone toward turning ice into water.”
  • Beijing wiped out the democracy camp in Hong Kong. Now it’s replacing its friends,” by Shibani Mahtani and Theodora Yu: “After neutering the democracy movement with disqualifications and mass arrests, Beijing is tacitly effecting a shake-up of the pro-China camp, reflecting dwindling faith in its erstwhile allies amid its ongoing effort to remake Hong Kong.”
  • As Trump departs, his extremes live on in state GOPs,” by Aaron Blake: “The Texas GOP, like Arizona’s, has come under the control of a leader on the fringes of the GOP at a time when the state is drifting toward the opposing party.”
  • What you need to know about the coronavirus variants,” by Marisa Iati and Angela Fritz: “The same protective measures that have warded off the virus throughout the pandemic — maintaining social distance, wearing masks and washing our hands — are even more critical in the face of more transmissible variants.”

… and beyond

  • From Navy SEAL to part of the angry mob outside the Capitol,” by the New York Times’s Dave Philipps: “In the weeks since Adam Newbold, a former member of the Navy SEALs, was identified as part of the enraged crowd that descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6, he has been interviewed by the F.B.I. and has resigned under pressure from jobs as a mentor and as a volunteer wrestling coach. He expects his business to lose major customers over his actions. But none of it has shaken his belief, against all evidence, that the presidential election was stolen and that people like him were right to rise up.”
  • Angry farmers storm India’s Red Fort in huge tractor rally,” by the AP’s Sheikh Saaliq: “The farmers have been protesting for nearly two months, demanding the withdrawal of new laws that they say will favor large corporate farms and devastate the earnings of smaller scale farmers. … Farmers — many of them Sikhs from Punjab and Haryana states — tried to march into New Delhi in November but were stopped by police. Since then, unfazed by the winter cold, they have hunkered down at the edge of the city and threatened to besiege it if the farm laws are not repealed.”
  • Disneyland to make the Jungle Cruise more inclusive after years-long complaints of racism,” by the Los Angeles Times’s Todd Martens: “The ride’s unsavory tribal depictions, largely inspired by images from Papua New Guinea, were added in the years after its opening. These vignettes essentially depict indigenous people as either tourist attraction, attackers or cannibals.”
  • D.C. restaurants add service charges to offset pandemic expenses,” by Washington City Paper’s Sarah Cooke: “Without substantive economic relief, these fees help business owners offset some expenses such as purchasing personal protective equipment, to-go packaging, and even higher wages as customers opt for takeout and delivery instead of dine-in service, reducing workers’ potential for tips.”

The first 100 days

Biden is expected to take executive actions on Thursday to reopen ACA insurance marketplaces. 

The orders will be Biden's first steps to help Americans gain health insurance and will also: 

  • Lower recent barriers to joining Medicaid, Amy Goldstein reports.
  • Reopen HealthCare.gov for at least a few months. Ordinarily, Americans who can’t get affordable health coverage through their jobs can only sign up for this marketplace insurance during a tightly restricted six-week period late each year.
  • Reverse Trump-era changes to Medicaid that critics believe damaged Americans’ access to safety-net insurance.
The president says the U.S. could vaccinate 1.5 million a day. 
  • Biden has for weeks aimed for 1 million shots a day, or 100 million vaccinations, in his first 100 days. That is still his minimum goal, he said, but he believes 1.5 million shots daily is doable. The country is already close to the million-a-day pace, Annie Linskey reports.
  • Biden is now projecting a relatively optimistic timeline, even while acknowledging that the coronavirus death toll in the United States could eventually reach 600,000 or even 660,000. He said that, by spring, everyone who wants a vaccine should be able to get one. The U.S. coronavirus death toll has 420,000, per The Post’s tracker.
President Biden on Jan. 25 said anyone who wants a coronavirus vaccine will be able to get one by "this spring." (The Washington Post)
Biden will address racism toward Asian Americans during the pandemic with an executive action. 

The president is expected to disavow racism and xenophobia toward Asian Americans, likely as part of a package of actions focusing on “equity” unveiled next Tuesday, CBS News reports. The directives may include:

  • Instructing the Justice Department to assist in accurately collecting collection and reporting hate incidents and harassment toward Asian Americans.
  • Directing federal agencies to examine whether there are xenophobic references to the “China Virus” in any existing policies, directives or government websites published by the Trump administration. The former president regularly referred to the coronavirus by that name.
  • Other unrelated measures expected to be announced Tuesday relate to fair housing, voting rights and police practices, John Wagner reports.
  • The administration will also resume the process to replace President Andrew Jackson with abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, Jacob Bogage reports.
Mitch McConnell said he’ll agree to a power-sharing accord in the 50-50 Senate. 
  • At issue for McConnell was the fate of the filibuster, the Senate rule that effectively means most legislation must garner a 60-vote supermajority, Mike DeBonis reports. Many Democrats are calling for its elimination, but McConnell wanted Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) assurance that it would be preserved.
  • After two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — reiterated their public opposition to eliminating the filibuster, McConnell said he would move forward on a deal modeled on a 2001 precedent giving the party with the vice presidency control of the floor agenda.
  • Manchin said killing the filibuster conflicts with Biden’s goal of uniting the country, while a spokeswoman for Sinema said she is “not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster.”

But this could spark a Republican uproar very quickly:

Quote of the day

“I think it has to happen,” Biden said about an impeachment trial in an interview with CNN. Acknowledging the effect a trial of Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot could have on his legislative agenda and personnel confirmations, Biden said there would be “a worse effect if it didn’t happen.” 

Tracking Biden's nominations

Blinken is expected to be confirmed by the Senate starting in a noon vote.
  • Biden’s nominee for secretary of state will likely become the fourth member of the president’s Cabinet, Wagner reports.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved his nomination in a 15-3 vote.
The Senate confirmed Janet Yellen as the nation’s first female treasury secretary. 
  • The final vote was 84 to 15, with McConnell among those supporting Yellen, Jeff Stein and Rachel Siegel report.
  • Yellen’s most immediate task will be pushing Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package through Congress. She will also play a critical role in Biden’s efforts to reduce income inequality and approve a recovery package focused on creating manufacturing and clean-energy jobs expected to be introduced in February.
The administration will name Susan Orsega, a nurse, as the nation’s acting surgeon general. 
  • Orsega, a career-commissioned officer in the Public Health Service corps and a longtime infectious-disease specialist, would be among the first nurses to serve in the role, Dan Diamond reports. The announcement of her selection could come today.
  • Biden nominated Vivek Murthy, a close adviser who served as surgeon general in the Obama administration, to return to his previous role. But Murthy’s confirmation hearings are yet to be scheduled.
Biden plans on naming California Labor Secretary Julie Su as the Labor Department’s No. 2. 
  • Su, who has the backing of a chorus of progressives, has accepted the White House’s offer of deputy secretary, Bloomberg Law reports. The announcement could come today.
  • Initially a civil rights lawyer, Su has earned support from labor leaders and worker advocates for her decades of work advocating for low-wage and immigrant communities.
  • If confirmed, Su would be a leading force at the department that Biden tasked with helping repair the economy from the devastation brought on by the pandemic. Currently, Su, is investigating the staggering $11 billion worth of fraudulent unemployment claims made in California since the pandemic began. Those fraudulent payments represent about 10 percent of all payments for pandemic era unemployment benefits, she said, per the Sacramento Bee.

Hot on the left

Authorities continue detaining right-wing rioters who stormed the Capitol. Brandon Straka, the right-wing activist who made national headlines after being banned from American Airlines for refusing to wear a mask, was charged and arrested for participating in the Capitol insurrection, per The Daily Beast. Riley Williams, the woman who allegedly stole a laptop from Pelosi’s office, may lose her Internet access because she may have encouraged others to destroy evidence, per Law & Crime. And federal authorities arrested and charged a man who wore his high school varsity jacket to the siege. The jacket included the name of his high school and his former jersey number, per HuffPost

Hot on the right

Trump established the “Office of the Former President.” The office, based in Florida, will handle Trump’s duties as a former president and attempt to further his agenda and “advance the interests of the United States,” per a statement from the office. (New York Post

Trump's misleading claims, visualized

This week in Washington

Biden will deliver remarks on “the fight to contain the covid-19 pandemic" this evening. 

Harris will receive the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine today. 

Senate committees are today scheduled to consider Alejandro Mayorkas’s nomination for secretary of homeland security and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo's nomination for commerce secretary.

Jennifer Granholm, Pete Buttigieg, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominees for energy, transportation and the U.N. ambassador, respectively, will meet with Senate committees tomorrow morning. Denis McDonough, Biden’s pick for Veterans Affairs, will meet with the Senate Wednesday evening. 

Hearings for Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Biden’s pick for housing, and Cecilia Rouse, Biden’s pick for chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, will be held on Thursday. 

In closing

Stephen Colbert wants to know why Biden, in six days, hasn't fixed everything yet: