with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletterToday, we contrast President Biden's CNN town hall with “the former guy.” But don’t miss our lunchtime chat with Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission, about the forthcoming commission on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Sometimes local or regional news is national news in disguise, so send me your most interesting published items from outside the Beltway. And tell your friends to sign up here.

Hours after his GOP predecessor issued a rambling, grievance and falsehood-fueled statement attacking the top Republican in Congress, sparking a frenetic flurry of tweets from some political reporters, President Biden gave the country a boring town hall performance on CNN.

Boring, that is, unless you wanted to know when America might push past the pandemic and get back to normal, or at least normal-adjacent (“by next Christmas, I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance,” Biden said.)

Tedious, unless you wanted to know when any American who wanted to get vaccinated against the coronavirus will be able to get the shot (“by the end of July of this year” there will be enough vaccine doses “available” to do that, Biden said.)

Dull, unless you were a small-business owner worried about the impact of the Democratic push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 (“It’s totally legitimate” for a small business owner to worry, Biden said. But “Here’s the deal. It’s about doing it gradually. We’re at $7.25 an hour. No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty.”).

Sleepy, unless you were another small-business owner unhappy with his access to federal assistance in past packages from Washington and worried whether things would be different with Biden’s $1.9 trillion dollar proposal.

Bland, unless you were a father of four kids wondering when his offspring could get back to “brick and mortar” school, or a high school English teacher worried about the potential health ramifications of doing so, or the parent of an unvaccinated chronic lung disease patient, or an 8-year-old girl eager to know when she might get inoculated, or someone worried about the relationships between communities and their police departments, or about racial disparities in health care. 

And on and on it went, the president hearing (mostly Democratic) Americans’ fears and hopes and frustrations, as well as questions from CNN host Anderson Cooper.

President Biden fielded questions at a televised town hall on Feb. 16, where he was asked about vaccines, immigration and domestic terrorism. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Let’s come out and say it: An absence of incendiary tweets doesn’t make a young presidency boring when the administration is facing a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the resulting economic devastation, the climate crisis and a host of other problems. A running seven-day average of deaths from the virus stood at 2,455.

Whatever the assessment of whether Biden is meeting those challenges, these are not boring times.
On the substance, the Delaware Democrat probably disappointed progressives on several fronts. 

One audience member said she needed at least $50,000 in student-loan forgiveness, only to have Biden tell her “I will not make that happen.” On the minimum wage, the president signaled flexibility on how quickly to increase it. Asked how to reform policing to balance long-simmering racial justice demands with curbing crime, the president began his answer with “[b]y, number one, not defunding the police.”  

The people who might legitimately have had complaints about the town-hall tone were those hoping Biden would unleash on Donald Trump, perhaps recalling when the former vice president called his predecessor a “clown” in their first debate and invited him to “shut up, man.”

In his first clear reference to Trump, Biden merely alluded to “the former guy.”

As part of an answer to Tim Eichinger, a Democratic voter and co-owner of a brewery battered by the pandemic, Biden declared: “I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump, don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

Asked by Cooper to say whether he thought Senate Republicans who voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial were cowards, Biden responded: “I’m not gonna call names out. For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years I want to make sure all in the news is the American people.” (Biden saved his harshest language for white supremacists, whom he called “demented” and “dangerous.”)

Biden disclosed that he has called former presidents since taking office just weeks ago, but offered no further details.

“And by the way, all of them have — with one exception — picked up the phone and called me as well,” Biden added. He did not say whom. He probably did not need to.

That might have been … boring.

What’s happening now

The Department of Justice just announced changes against three North Korean hacker spies accused of stealing more than $1.3 billion in cash and cryptocurrency. The indictment builds on 2018 charges brought against one of the alleged hackers in connection with the 2014 cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, Ellen Nakashima report.  

Trump’s Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told the New York Times they didn’t bring up women generals for promotion last year because they feared Trump officials would replace them with "white men" before leaving office. The two Pentagon leaders instead held back their recommendations until after the November election, betting that if Biden won, his administration would be more supportive of the Pentagon picks. 

  • The strategy may succeed: Biden defense officials are expected to send the nominations of Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force and Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army to the White House, where they're then expected to be forwarded to the Senate for confirmation

The global number of new coronavirus cases has declined by 16 percent over the past week, the WHO said. There has been a 10 percent reduction in the global deaths over the past week, the agency added. Europe and the Americas, including the U.S., in particular, have seen the greatest drops in new cases reported, Erin Cunningham and Derek Hawkins report

The Arctic outbreak has left at least 16 dead. The two major winter storms are maintaining their grip on much of the Lower 48 states, with the electricity grid in Texas, Louisiana, and Kentucky, along with other states, struggling to come back online, Andrew Freedman, Jason Samenow, Paulina Firozi and Matthew Cappucci report. At least 2.5 million customers are still in the dark in Texas, with officials warning that outages are likely to last through Wednesday and beyond. 

The House Judiciary Committee renewed a debate over reparations for slavery. This morning, lawmakers debated H.R. 40, which is named after the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” by the post-Civil War government. The bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989. Sponsors are hopeful that, in the wake of a year of racial justice protests, with Democrats in control of Congress and with Biden in the White House, the bill may actually pass. 

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Internal report cites HUD for lead poisoning in East Chicago, Ind., children. More could be at risk,” by Tracy Jan: “The Department of Housing and Urban Development has for years neglected to enforce its own environmental regulations, resulting in lead poisoning of children in at least one public housing development and potentially jeopardizing residents’ health in thousands of other federally subsidized apartments near contaminated sites, according to an inspector general report obtained by The Post.”
  • Millions of jobs probably aren’t coming back, even after the pandemic ends,” by Heather Long: “Businesses are planning for a future where more people are working from home, traveling less for business, or replacing workers with robots. All of these modifications mean many workers will not be able to do the same job they did before the pandemic, even after much of the U.S. population gets vaccinated against the deadly virus.” 

… and beyond

  • No, frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages,” by the Texas Tribune’s Erin Douglas and Ross Ramsey: “Frozen wind turbines in Texas caused some conservative state politicians to declare Tuesday that the state was relying too much on renewable energy. But in reality, the lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans across the state during a major winter storm.”
  • Galveston County requesting aid to store bodies after brutal freeze, power outage,” by the Galveston Daily News’s John Wayne Ferguson: “The Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office on Tuesday requested a refrigerated storage truck to help accommodate at least 20 bodies of people who had died over the past two days during brutally cold weather and a lingering power outage, county officials said. The order puts into perspective how great the toll the last two days have taken on county residents has been.”
  • Is giving our drinking water legal personhood the best way to protect it?” by the Counter’s Sam Bloch: “For two years, residents of Nottingham, New Hampshire ... have backed an unusual law to protect the drinking water they pull from their wells. The Freedom from Chemical Trespass Rights-Based Ordinance, which voters passed in 2019, gives the streams, rivers, and tributaries that flow into Nottingham’s drinking water supply — along with all other ecosystems ‘and natural communities’ — their own legal personhood.”

At the table

Today we’re lunching with Philip Zelikow, who served as executive director of the 9/11 commission, in light of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) decision to launch a similar panel on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Knox: What does an independent commission have that a special counsel or a congressional committee does not have?

Zelikow: An independent commission has a different scope than a legal investigation. An independent commission can have a broader mandate to tell the story and make suggestions for policy that go well beyond the more confined scope of a purely legal inquiry. An independent commission is also an opportunity to display leading figures in both parties coming together in order to seek common ground about what happened and why — again, in a way that goes beyond a typical legal inquiry.

Knox: What are some of the questions you have about this Jan. 6 commission?

Zelikow: First, there will be an argument about the proper scope of this commission. The argument will be between those who prefer that it narrowly focus on Capitol Hill security and those who prefer, as the speaker does, to give the commission scope to investigate Trump’s broad effort to overthrow the results of the November election and put the attack on the Capitol in the context of that broad assault on constitutional democracy.

That larger scope makes sense in many ways but invites a quite broad investigation into everything that Trump and his circle did after [after the election], and the way that their agenda converged and built on the agenda of violent extremists inside the United States. So my first point is to note that there is some potential tension in defining the scope of the commission.

The second major issue they will face, especially if they adopt the broader scope that the speaker intends, is that the investigation will overlap with and conflict with the ongoing criminal investigations of the attackers, of Trump’s circle, and Trump’s efforts to overthrow the election, such as the ongoing criminal investigation in Georgia. Both because of grand jury secrecy rules and the rights of people under criminal investigation, the significant and ongoing criminal proceedings will significantly impact and perhaps greatly delay the work of the commission that has the broader scope the speaker has called for.

Knox: Are there things that the 9/11 commission did not have that you think this one should have?

Zelikow: From the point of view of legal powers, no.

Knox: What would you tell the executive director of the Jan. 6 commission assuming it goes forward?

Zelikow: First, I would tell her or him that she or he needs to accept responsibility for recommending the right executive direction to the commission’s investigation and conceive it broadly, not just as the equivalent of an inspector general’s report. It’s very important to focus on choices, not just on outcomes, in order to unpack and understand crucial choices and the alternatives that were available to people at the time and how, and how and why they took one path instead of another.

Second, I would stress the significance of having a unitary and nonpartisan staff, unlike the staffs that congressmen are accustomed to having in the organization of their committees. 

Third, I think it’s very important to attract and retain a highly competent staff. The commissioners are very important, and the commissioners should provide direction through the chair and vice-chair to the executive director. But often people pay a lot of attention to the commissioners, and not enough attention to the recruitment of staff who will shoulder the responsibility of doing almost all of the investigative work. I was very fortunate to have a large and outstanding staff, organized in a number of teams that worked very effectively on the 9/11 commission.

Fourth, the commissioners are selected in a necessarily political process, and the commissioners will have to decide whether the commission’s work will reflect the partisan divisions that divide the country, or try to overcome those divisions by a singular focus on the factual record of what happened and why.

Knox: I remember the back-and-forth over whether and how the 9/11 commission would interview then-President George W. Bush. What were some lessons you drew from that, since we’re probably going to have some kind of conversation about whether this new commission should or will question former president Trump?

Zelikow: They will have to question [former] president [Donald] Trump if it has the scope that the speaker has proposed for it. It will have to attempt to question him. It will probably have to fight through litigation to question him and other members of his inner circle. They will then have to decide whether to take the Fifth Amendment or answer questions with potential criminal exposure if they lie. Quite aside from subpoena power, it’s a felony to lie to or mislead a government commission.

It’s essential that a lot of the factual investigative work, including with the necessary documents, should have been completed before you interview the top principals. It is also important that you allow enough time for the interviews in order to conduct a rigorous examination of the factual record.

I am actually in the process of working on a potential national commission. A group of foundations approached me last year to begin organizing an effort to study how to do a massive national commission on the covid pandemic crisis.

People will develop some opinion about what happened, and why, and what it means, very quickly whenever you have a mass trauma on this scale.

And if a national commission can help ground that discussion in healthier understanding of what happened and how our institutions performed, and why this pandemic arose, what dangers do we see in the future, how did we work through the choices we made, in everything from warning, to containment, to vaccine development and distribution, to economic adjustment, it can enormously help the country respond and prepare better for one of the few kinds of dangers that pose a truly existential threat to human society.

This is the worst economic and health disaster to afflict human society since the Second World War.

The first 100 days

Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told Biden he won’t overturn Senate rules to include certain things in the relief package.
  • What: Manchin privately informed the president he would oppose attempts to skirt the Senate parliamentarian's rulings on the contents of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill, CNN reports. The parliamentarian will decide what can be included in the stimulus based on whether it has budgetary impact.
  • How: Democrats are using a partisan maneuver known as budget reconciliation to pass their bill by a simple majority. But 60 votes would be required to overturn the so-called Byrd rule preventing such an extraneous provision.
  • Why: The West Virginia Democrat doesn't want to see a $15  hourly minimum wage hike included in the package. But House progressives, and Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) do.
  • Huh: Biden said last night in the CNN town hall he was open to a slower phasing-in of a minimum wage boost.
Biden’s new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary inherited an oversight office viewed as abetting corruption. 
  • VA Secretary Denis McDonough must now confront the troubled Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, Lisa Rein reports, which employees say is behind a long list of alleged reprisals against those who raise concerns of corruption and misconduct against superiors.
  • The OAWP has received more than 3,400 complaints since 2017 but has only recommended discipline against just 32 of thousands of senior leaders through mid-January, a number that struck some lawmakers as disappointingly low. It’s unclear how many managers were actually disciplined.
The Biden administration will strike a more cooperative tone during its first meeting with senior NATO officials.
  • Senior U.S. defense officials also signaled that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wouldn’t offer any U.S. decisions on Afghanistan at the virtual two-day NATO meeting for defense ministers kicking off today, Paul Sonne and Michael Birnbaum report. The officials said the Biden administration is reviewing the “frayed” U.S.-Taliban peace agreement in particular. A senior official said Taliban compliance with the deal — which U.S. officials have criticized — would be a key part of the review. (We reported on the review at the end of January).
  • In an op-ed published in today’s paper, Austin argues the U.S. “can’t meet its responsibilities alone.” “This is the message I will deliver Wednesday to my counterparts at the NATO defense ministers’ meeting. We must consult together, decide together and act together,” he said.
  • Most notable will probably be a rapprochement between Biden officials and traditional American allies. Biden has gone out of his way to signal support for NATO after Trump's long disparagement campaign, including by recording a video of a friendly phone call to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. One significant shift so far, diplomats said, is the administration appears interested in allies views' on Afghanistan operations.
Homeland Security officials scrapped a Trump-era contract that could have stalled Biden’s immigration policies. 
  • DHS ended a deal Ken Cuccinelli, Trump’s second-in-command at DHS at the time, signed with a union of deportation officers the day before Biden’s inauguration, CBS News reports. The contract gave a union representing ICE deportation officers the ability to delay the implementation of agency policies, allowing them to have “veto authority” over certain policy-making in the agency.

Quote of the day

During a “Today” show interview this morning, Vice President Harris, a former prosecutor, declined to say whether Trump should be criminally prosecuted in connection to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack after being pressed on whether there would be a strong case. “I haven’t viewed the case through the lens of a prosecutor,” Harris said. “I’m reviewing the case of covid in America through the lens of being the vice president of America.”

The post-Trump era

Trump attacked Mitch McConnell as a ‘political hack.’
  • The Twitter-less Trump last night lashed out against his former congressional ally in a statement, saying the Senate minority leader has a “lack of political insight, wisdom, skill, and personality.” The diatribe, issued through an affiliated super PAC, confirmed the former president plans to back pro-Trump GOP candidates in an attempt to maintain power over the party, Mike DeBonis reports.
  • Trump’s statement came after McConnell voted to acquit him in the Senate impeachment trial. But McConnell harshly criticized the ex-president for being “morally responsible for provoking” the Jan. 6 attack. “Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” Trump said in the statement. “He will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country.”
  • The statement also included a particularly nasty — and unfounded — personal dig against McConnell and his wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Trump accused McConnell of being soft on China because of “his family’s substantial Chinese business holdings,” in an apparent reference to Chao.
  • “While Chao was born in Taiwan to a wealthy shipping family and has benefited from an inheritance, McConnell’s personal financial disclosures show no Chinese business interests,” DeBonis reported.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) weighed in on the feud between Trump and McConnell. 
  • The senator lamented the two are “at each other’s throat” and said Trump is key to the Republican Party’s electoral prospects in 2022.
  • “What I would say to Senator McConnell, I know Trump can be a handful, but he is the most dominant figure in the Republican Party,” Graham told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “We don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of taking back the majority without Donald Trump. If you don’t get that, you’re just not looking.”
More GOP Trump dissenters are facing backlash. 
  • Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer (R) is one of the 10 Republicans who supported Trump's impeachment who are now facing consequences among their base, the New York Times reports. “I could not have been more disappointed,” a Meijer constituent said during the lawmaker's first town hall event since the impeachment vote. “I don’t think that there’s much you can say that will ever change my mind into not primarying you out in two years.”
Former president Donald Trump slammed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Feb. 16, days after the Senate acquitted him in his second impeachment trial. (Reuters)

Hot on the left

Rudy Giuliani is not currently representing Trump “in any legal matters.” Senior Trump adviser Jason Miller told CNN that Giuliani remains an “ally and a friend” to the former president and is not representing him because there are no pending cases in which he’s involved. 

Hot on the right

Conservatives are calling for the U.S. to pull its team out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. “One decision the Biden administration will have to make soon relates to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. With the opening ceremony less than a year away, the administration says it has no plans to support boycotting or moving the Games despite China’s grotesque human rights abuses at home and economic and military aggression abroad,” writes Ellen Bork in the Bulwark. 

Speed of Biden’s confirmations, visualized

This week in Washington

Biden and Harris will meet with labor leaders to discuss their economic relief plan at 3:30 p.m. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee will on Monday and Tuesday next week hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s nomination to lead the Department of Justice. 

On Tuesday, Biden’s nominee to lead the Health and Human Services Department, Xavier Becerra, will testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. That same day, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Rules and Administration committees will hold a joint hearing to examine the Jan. 6 attack.  

In closing

Jimmy Kimmel said Mitch McConnell’s decision not to convict Trump is the “dumber” version of the time when Frodo took the ring to Mount Doom but didn’t throw it in the fire: