President Biden announced plans Monday to help “mom-and-pop businesses” benefit from a loan program crafted by Congress, saying they had been “muscled out of the way by bigger companies.” Later, Biden held a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House to mark the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, noting that more Americans have died in a single year than in World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War combined.

“Today, we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone,” Biden said. He noted that the United States has lost more lives to the virus “than any other nation on Earth.”

Earlier Monday, on Capitol Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Biden’s nomination of federal Judge Merrick Garland as attorney general, while the nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the White House budget office faces further peril.

Here’s what to know:
  • Dominion Voting Systems filed a defamation lawsuit seeking $1.3 billion in damages from MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell and his company after he repeatedly echoed then-President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of widespread voter fraud involving Dominion.
  • Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced their opposition Monday to the nomination of Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Merrick Garland said Monday that his first briefing and top priority if confirmed would center on the sprawling investigation into the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, as he more broadly vowed to stamp out the rising threat of domestic terrorism.
  • With millions of Texans grappling with water restrictions, spiking energy bills and other havoc left behind by last week’s winter storm, White House officials said Sunday that Biden is “eager” to visit and could head there as soon as this week.
2:12 a.m.
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At stake in Senate hearing Tuesday: The story of the Capitol riot, and who is responsible

The public inquest into the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol begins a new phase Tuesday when four law enforcement officials — three of whom resigned their posts and some of whom have never before spoken publicly about the attack — face lawmakers aiming to uncover what led to the violence and prevent future unrest.

But Tuesday’s hearing before members of two Senate committees could also become a battleground for competing narratives over what prompted the riot and who was responsible for it — a question that has become even more pointed after former president Donald Trump’s acquittal on impeachment changes this month.

Trump’s allies in Congress and beyond have sought to downplay the former president’s role in gathering his supporters in Washington and spreading the false claim that he, not Joe Biden, won the November election — facts that led to bipartisan impeachment proceedings. Instead, they have sought to blame lapses by Capitol security officials, and the congressional leaders they report to, for the building’s invasion.

1:58 a.m.
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Analysis: The Supreme Court could review state abortion restrictions. Here’s what to expect.

Amy Coney Barrett, the Supreme Court’s newest justice, has helped to uphold one abortion restriction so far.

But there’s a pipeline of challenges to state abortion laws that could eventually be heard by the nation’s highest court — and legal experts predict the newly empowered conservative majority could expand the ability of states to restrict the procedure.

In a 6-to-3 decision last month, in which Barrett sided with the other five conservative justices, the court reinstated a Food and Drug Administration requirement for women to pick up medication abortion drugs in a medical setting, instead of obtaining them through the mail.

1:34 a.m.
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Texas attorney general Ken Paxton traveled to Utah amid winter storms, prompting criticism from Democrats

As millions of Texans remained without power amid last week’s devastating winter storms, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton traveled to Salt Lake City to meet with his Utah counterpart, becoming the latest official to come under criticism for leaving the state amid the crisis.

A Paxton spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night. News of the trip was first reported by the Dallas Morning News, which cited a spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes as saying that Paxton and Reyes met last Wednesday and Friday.

Paxton rose to prominence on the national stage last year when he filed a long-shot lawsuit seeking to overturn the presidential election results in four key swing states that Biden won. The Supreme Court dismissed the case in December.

Texas Democrats on Monday blasted Paxton for the Utah trip, comparing him to embattled Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R), who spent about 24 hours in Cancún last week on an ill-fated effort to escape the storms.

Paxton “joins Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz in either fleeing their responsibilities for Texans or fleeing the state entirely,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “This is a pattern.”

“Texas Republicans do not give a damn about the people they were elected to represent, and they continue to focus on issues that don’t affect the lives of everyday Texans to gaslight them into thinking they are doing their jobs,” he added.

In addition to leaving the state last week, both Cruz and Paxton are listed among the speakers at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando Trump is expected to address attendees on Sunday.

According to the Dallas Morning News, both Paxton and his wife, Texas state Sen. Angela Paxton (R), traveled to Utah last week.

“The attorneys general discussed an antitrust lawsuit several states are pursuing against Google, and Paxton attended a demonstration of a police training program,” Paxton’s campaign spokesman, Ian Prior, told the newspaper.

A spokeswoman for Angela Paxton, meanwhile, told the paper that the state senator joined her husband “on a previously planned trip to Utah which included meetings that benefit her efforts to promote human dignity and support law enforcement,” without providing further details.

12:38 a.m.
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Biden faces first potential Cabinet defeat as opposition grows to budget pick

President Biden was on the cusp of his first Cabinet defeat Monday as two closely watched GOP senators announced their opposition to Neera Tanden, his pick to be the nation’s chief budget official, potentially dealing a major blow to an administration that has struggled to fill top posts across government.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) indicated Monday that they plan to vote against Tanden, citing now-deleted social media posts attacking GOP lawmakers. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) announced his opposition to Tanden, nominated for the Office of Management and Budget, late last week, meaning at least one Republican would be needed to confirm Tanden in an evenly divided Senate.

12:20 a.m.
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Cruz attends Garland hearing in first Senate appearance since Cancún saga

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on Monday made his first appearance in the Senate since his return from a Cancún vacation that came under fire over his decision to leave his state and constituents in crisis, using his time to criticize the Obama administration.

Cruz complained that the Justice Department under President Barack Obama had been “politicized and weaponized,” though the senator had never complained when those same charges were leveled against the Trump Justice Department.

“I do not regard myself as anything other than the lawyer for the people of the United States, and I am not the president’s lawyer. I am the United States’ lawyer,” Garland said. “And I will do everything in my power, which I believe is considerable, to fend off any effort by anyone to make prosecutions or investigations partisan or political in any way.

During his term, President Donald Trump had openly regarded the attorney general as someone who should be loyal to him.

Cruz’s appearance in the Senate comes days after his return from Cancún. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, individuals who travel internationally should get tested for the novel coronavirus three to five days after travel and stay home and self-quarantine for seven days after travel.

Jessica Skaggs, a spokeswoman for Cruz, said the senator tested negative before his flight to Houston last week and again Sunday before returning to Washington “to fulfill his Senate responsibilities.”

Asked why Cruz was not quarantining at home after traveling to Mexico, Skaggs replied that Cruz was doing so for “the same reason that senators and members of Congress don’t quarantine when they fly to D.C. each week even though CDC recommends they do. He has a job to do, he’s been tested and wears a mask.”

During Monday’s hearing, Cruz brought up the Fast and Furious scandal, a sting operation using firearms sales to track drug traffickers. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., was held in contempt of Congress by the GOP majority for refusing to hand over documents related to the operation.

Cruz pressed Garland several times on the issue of partisanship and the politicization of the Justice Department, citing examples only from the Obama years, including the surveillance of some Trump aides over possible collusion with Russia.

The only basis for targeting has to be evidence of the risk of a foreign intelligence problem or of a criminal problem. And that is a nonpartisan issue,” Garland said. “That is a question of objective facts and law. And it can never be an effort to help one party or another party in politics, in investigations and prosecutions. There is no party. The department is an independent, nonpartisan actor, and that’s my job to ensure that that’s the case.”

12:17 a.m.
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Biden marks 500,000th coronavirus death in the United States: ‘A truly grim, heartbreaking milestone’

In a somber address at the White House, Biden marked the passage of “a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone” — the 500,000th death in the United States from covid-19.

“That’s more Americans who’ve died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I or II and the Vietnam War combined,” Biden said. “That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.”

Biden’s remarks were deeply personal at times, as he spoke of “the survivor’s remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul” for those who have lost a loved one. The president has spoken often of his grief after losing his wife and infant daughter in a car crash shortly before he entered the Senate in 1972 and after he later lost his son Beau to cancer in 2015.

“I know that when you stare at that empty chair around the kitchen table, it brings it all back, no matter how long ago it happened — as if it just happened that moment, when you look at that empty chair,” he said.

He spoke of “the birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them,” as well as “the small things, the tiny things that you miss the most.”

“That scent when you open the closet,” Biden said. “That park you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together. The bend in his smile. The perfect pitch to her laugh.”

After his remarks, Biden and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, went out to the South Portico of the White House, where they held a brief candle-lighting ceremony. Five hundred candles were lit on the steps, one for every 1,000 people in the United States dead from covid-19.

Biden made the sign of the cross as he and the first lady stood in silence, marking the solemn milestone at the same venue where President Donald Trump returned from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and took off his face mask last fall after his own bout with the deadly disease.

12:13 a.m.
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Conservative conference disinvites online activist Young Pharoah after his antisemitic tweets surface

The Conservative Political Action Conference disinvited Young Pharoah, an online activist who had been slated to speak on a panel of Black conservatives, after a liberal media watchdog uncovered antisemitic tweets he’d written as recently as last year.

“We have just learned that someone we invited to CPAC has expressed reprehensible views that have no home with our conference or our organization,” conference organizers said in a statement posted to Twitter on Monday afternoon. “The individual will not be participating at our conference.”

Young Pharoah was scheduled to be part of a five-guest lineup on the topic of “doubt, dysfunction, and the price of missed opportunities,” moderated by the founder of the Black conservative group Black Guns Matter.

Hours after Media Matters published a compilation of his offensive comments, Young Pharoah was removed from CPAC’s website, and from an updated conference schedule. While the theme of this year’s CPAC is “America Uncanceled,” Young Pharoah is not the first speaker disinvited or preemptively barred from the year’s largest gathering of conservatives.

In 2017, CPAC announced that Milo Yiannopoulos, an anti-feminist commentator who had been banned from Twitter, would speak to the conference; after critics posted a video of Yiannopoulos joking about under-aged sex and age of consent laws, he was removed from the schedule. The 48-year-old conference has also banned well-known white nationalists like Richard Spencer from attending, even if they’ve paid for tickets.

Young Pharoah did not have the media profile of either Yiannopoulos or Spencer, but had built an audience during Donald Trump’s presidency by discussing the Democratic Party’s support for slavery and discrimination before the Civil Rights era, and by praising Trump as a leader who would “drain the swamp” over political opposition.

“I definitely respect Donald Trump,” Young Pharoah said in a 2020 commentary about the presidential election. “Warriors respect warriors. Intelligent men respect intelligent men.”

The commentator’s antisemitic views had gotten less attention before Monday, when Media Matters highlighted tweets that blamed Jews for “all the censorship and pedophilia on social media,” and alleged that the 2020 criminal justice reform protests following the killing of George Floyd were part of a conspiracy. “The coronavirus didn’t work so they staged a riot to try and institute martial law,” Young Pharoah tweeted in May 2020.

The conference begins on Thursday in Orlando. The panel that Young Pharoah was initially part of was scheduled for one hour before Trump himself took the stage.

10:38 p.m.
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White House flags lowered to half-staff to honor 500,000 dead from covid

Ahead of remarks to the nation recognizing the 500,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic that has paralyzed much of the country for nearly a year, President Biden ordered the White House flags lowered to half-staff at 5 p.m. Monday. They will stay lowered for the rest of the week.

As the White House lowered its flags, the Washington National Cathedral tolled its bells 500 times in honor of the 500,000 dead.

“On this solemn occasion, we reflect on their loss and on their loved ones left behind. We, as a Nation, must remember them so we can begin to heal, to unite, and find purpose as one Nation to defeat this pandemic,” Biden said in a proclamation ordering the flags lowered.

The president will also lead the nation in a moment of silence at 6:15 p.m.

Biden’s acknowledgment of the coronavirus’s tragic toll on so many American families is a dramatic departure from former president Donald Trump, who often downplayed the severity of the virus and rarely spoke of the lives lost to it.

8:48 p.m.
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After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis orders flags at half-staff for Rush Limbaugh, state official says her department won’t comply

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said Monday that she will direct her department not to lower its flags in honor of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died of complications from lung cancer last week.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said last week that he would order the state’s flags to be flown at half-staff on the day of Limbaugh’s funeral, which has yet to be announced.

“I will not lower the flags at my Department’s state offices for Rush Limbaugh,” Fried said Monday in a tweet. “Lowering our flag should reflect unity, not division — and raising our standards, not lowering them.”

At a news conference Friday, DeSantis hailed Limbaugh, who was a Florida resident, as a friend, a “great person” and “an absolute legend.”

But Fried, a Democrat, pointed Monday to Limbaugh’s long history of sexist and bigoted statements and said that her department “will not celebrate hate speech, bigotry, and division,” according to Tampa-based WFLA.

“Lowering to half-staff the flag of the United States of America is a sacred honor that pays respect to fallen heroes and patriots,” she said. “It is not a partisan political tool.”

Fried, a former public defender and marijuana lobbyist, narrowly beat Republican Matt Caldwell to win election as state agriculture commissioner in 2018. She is viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party and a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2022.

8:34 p.m.
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White House signals it is standing behind Tanden as Collins, Romney announce opposition

The White House is standing behind Neera Tanden for OMB director, even as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) announced they would oppose the nomination for the Office of Management and Budget post.

The White House has been scrambling to find Republican support for Tanden in the aftermath of Friday’s announcement by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) that he wouldn’t support her in the evenly divided Senate.

“The president nominated her because he believes she’d be a stellar OMB director,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing. “She’s tested. She’s a leading policy expert. ... And she has rolled up her sleeves and done the work.”

Psaki said she believes Tanden still has a path to confirmation but did not say how.

Tanden, who heads the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, has emerged as a lightning rod for criticism over her prior attacks on Republican lawmakers and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

At her contentious confirmation hearings this month, Senate Republicans repeatedly brought up Tanden’s previous criticism of GOP lawmakers, particularly on Twitter. Among those tweets was one calling Collins “the worst.”

“Neera Tanden has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency,” Collins said in a statement Monday. “Her past actions have demonstrated exactly the kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend.”

A spokesman for Romney announced his opposition as well, saying the senator “has been critical of extreme rhetoric from prior nominees, and this is consistent with that position.”

“He believes it’s hard to return to comity and respect with a nominee who has issued a thousand mean tweets,” the spokesman added.

GOP Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) also announced they will vote against Tanden.

“I believe that the tone, the content, and the aggressive partisanship of some of Ms. Tanden’s public statements will make it more difficult for her to work effectively with both parties in this role,” said Portman, who was OMB head under President George W. Bush.

Tanden’s best hope for confirmation is likely to rest with finding support from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), a Republican moderate in the chamber.

During an interview on CNN on Monday, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) declined to say whether Democrats could secure another Republican vote for Tanden.

7:38 p.m.
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Marines aren’t always present outside West Wing when president is in Oval Office, White House says

The Biden White House sought Monday to debunk a common notion that a Marine always stands outside the West Wing lobby whenever the president is working in the Oval Office.

The issue arose when a reporter inquired about the situation Monday morning, when Biden was said to have a meeting in the Oval Office but a Marine sentry was not visible outside.

“In general, the Marine Sentries are posted outside the West Wing Lobby when the President is working in the Oval Office,” the White House said in a statement. “However, the Marine Sentries are sometimes pulled for other details, including: events occurring at other locations at the White House (South Portico, Rose Garden, State Floor, South Lawn, etc.), support of other world leaders and/or guests of the President and/or First Lady, event dress rehearsals, and last minute details (such as today’s direction for them to get COVID tested). It is a misnomer that the Marine is always there when POTUS is in the Oval.”

Among those who have suggested that a Marine is always present was a Marine who worked at the Obama White House and wrote a blog post on the White House website in 2009.

“I would come to learn that there are actually four Marines who rotate in half hour shifts, standing sentry whenever the President is in the West Wing,” he wrote.

7:24 p.m.
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Garland says he thinks D.C. residents should have a vote in Congress, even though he ruled against it

In one of his earliest rulings on the federal appeals court in Washington, Garland ruled that D.C. residents do not have the constitutional right to voting representation in Congress.

Garland, who lives in Maryland, wrote in 2000 that the city is not a state, and that the Constitution only grants congressional voting representation to state residents.

Asked about the ruling on Monday, Garland said the decision made him “sad,” but reinforced what it means to be a judge.

The case, he told Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), “taught me what it means to be a judge, which is to do something the opposite of what you would do if you had a public policy concern.”

“I think that citizens of the District of Columbia should be able to vote, but I didn’t think that the Constitution gave me authority on my own to give it to them. And that made me sad,” Garland testified at his Senate confirmation hearing for attorney general.

7:06 p.m.
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Congressional leaders consider draft legislation to form commission that would investigate Jan. 6 Capitol attack

Congressional leaders are considering draft legislation for a bipartisan commission that would investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, in the latest step toward the panel’s formation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the commission earlier this month and said last week that it should have the power to subpoena witnesses.

According to a senior Democratic aide, a draft under discussion would call for each of the top four leaders on Capitol Hill to appoint two members to the panel. Biden would appoint three of the panel’s members, including its chair. The commission’s report would be due by the end of 2021, and the panel would be dissolved 60 days after it issues its report.

News of the draft legislation was first reported Monday by Punchbowl News.

Pelosi has said the Jan. 6 commission should be similar to the body that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for 15 months before issuing a 585-page report.

6:32 p.m.
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Garland chokes up describing his grandparents fleeing antisemitism

During his confirmation hearing on Feb. 22, attorney general nominee Merrick Garland said he wanted to pay back the country for protecting his grandparents. (The Washington Post)

Merrick Garland choked up as he answered a question from Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) about his motivations as the attorney general nominee testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He spoke of the antisemitism his grandparents came to the United States to escape.

“I come from a family where my grandparents fled antisemitism and persecution. The country took us in,” he said, taking a pause, “and protected us.”

Garland said he feels “an obligation to the country to pay back.”

“This is the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back,” he said. “And so I want very much to be the kind of attorney general that you’re saying I could become.”

Garland, who was nominated to the Supreme Court during the Obama administration, similarly cited his family’s history during the announcement of his nomination, in the Rose Garden in March 2016.

“My family deserves much of the credit for the path that led me here,” Garland said then. “My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of western Russian and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing antisemitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America.”