with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Today, we pore over President Biden’s Syria strikes and ties with Saudi Arabia. But don’t miss the latest on the rescue package, major nominations, coronavirus vaccines and variants. Sometimes local or regional news is national news in disguise, so send me your most interesting items from outside the Beltway. And tell your friends to sign up here.

President Biden’s two most recent headline-grabbing foreign policy decisions show a leader inclined toward caution and unworried about falling short of his political allies’ expectations or of breaking his own lofty campaign promises.

Biden’s choice to strike Iran-linked forces in Syria and formally blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi but stop short of punishing him personally offer some clues to how he’ll manage world affairs, even if it’s far too early to draw any sweeping conclusions.

The president has made the economy and the pandemic his top two priorities a reflection of his advisers’ certainty that voters will primarily judge him on his response to those crises.

But Biden faces an array of foreign policy decisions, few of them on a timetable of his choice.

An Afghanistan troop withdrawal decision looms within weeks. The policy on China has yet to be fully unveiled. Donald Trump’s tariffs on Europe remain. Presidential elections in Iran (June) and South Korea (next year) could reshape the landscape.

The administration explained Thursday’s strikes in eastern Syria as necessary both to retaliate against attacks on U.S. facilities and personnel in Iraq and to deter future such threats. 

Biden said the message to Tehran was clear: “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.” The president seemed to heed his own advice in one respect: American missiles fell in Syria, not Iraq, where U.S. military actions stir up issues about sovereignty.

On Friday, Biden released the U.S. intelligence finding that MBS, as he is known, was behind Khashoggi’s grisly killing and imposed sanctions on 76 Saudi officials the crown prince not among them.

Observers were quick to note this was at odds with Biden’s promise, at a November 2019 Democratic presidential debate, to hold senior Saudi leaders accountable for the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor.

At the time, the future president pledged to treat Riyadh like “the pariah that they are” and declared “there's very little socially redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

Asked about the chasm between his campaign remarks and last week’s decision, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday the administration’s goal “is really not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values.”

“This is bigger than any one person,” Blinken added.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Biden’s advisers “need to keep open additional sanctions against MBS if we don't see a change in behavior.”

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki answered critics of the decision not to impose sanctions on MBS.

“We believe there is more effective ways to make sure this doesn't happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement, where there is national interests for the United States,” she said.

“This is what diplomacy looks like,” Psaki said.

Since Biden took office, his administration’s watchword on Saudi relations has been “recalibrate.” Formally declaring an end to U.S. support for Riyadh’s military operations in Yemen and pausing Trump-approved arms sales to the kingdom have been some notable features.

But “recalibrate” also appears to mean moving away from a highly personalized relationship with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly making policy with MBS over private messaging tool WhatApp and into one governed by more traditional rules.

“They are attempting to restore a government-to-government relationship rather than the Trump-Kushner family to al-Saud relationship that revolved around the connection to MBS,” said Eric Edelman, a veteran foreign policy hand who served under presidents of both parties at the White House, Pentagon and Department of Defense.

Biden’s strikes on Iran-backed forces in Syria showed that the administration’s eagerness to get back into and expand the 2015 Iran nuclear deal doesn’t mean it’ll shy away from military action.

Here, evidence of Biden’s caution lies in the location of U.S. retaliation: Syria. Striking inside Iraq could have led to a backlash fueled by sovereignty concerns and potentially escalated attacks from Iran-backed elements there.

The strikes drew bipartisan support, though some White House allies in Congress criticized what they described as insufficient advance notice and what they portrayed as the dubious legal underpinnings for the attack.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who pressed the Obama and Trump administrations to justify military action taken without explicit approval from Congress, vowed Friday to do the same with Biden.

“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances. Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously,” Kaine said.

Warner, on Fox, said “the Biden missile launch was appropriate pushback against the Iranian proxies.”

Now, I wish the Biden team would have given Congress greater knowledge and greater warning. We got a heads-up about 15 minutes before the attack took place,” Warner added. “I think it brings into question a whole new debate around the authorization of use of military force, something my friend Tim Kaine has been advocating for almost a decade now. We need to have that debate in Congress.”

A day after Biden took office, a group of Democrats sent him a letter asking for cooperation in reining in presidential war-making powers. They may have just received their answer.

What’s happening now

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was sentenced to one year in prison after being found guilty of corruption and influence peddling. Sarkozy was also given a two-year suspended sentence, Rick Noack reports. Sarkozy, who was president between 2007 and 2012, was accused of being behind a deal with a magistrate to illegally receive information on inquiries linked to him, using false names and unofficial phone lines.  

The Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine is deepening concerns over racial and geographic inequities: “Decisions to send the shots to harder-to-reach communities make practical sense, because Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine is easier to store and use. But they could drive perceptions of a two-tiered vaccine system, riven along racial or class lines — with marginalized communities getting what they think is an inferior product,” Isaac Stanley-Becker reports. “The issue came up on a recent call between governors and Biden administration officials coordinating the country’s coronavirus response. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Massachusetts Republican and former health insurance executive, stressed the need for prominent health officials to communicate clearly about the benefits of the one-shot vaccine.” 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) ceded control of the investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him. Attorney General Letitia James will now have the ability to select a lead investigator, the Democrat & Chronicle reports

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • The power is back, but millions of Texans wonder what it will take to fully recover — and who will help them,” by Arelis Hernández: “Two weeks after a deadly winter storm led to a near-collapse of the Texas power grid, temperatures in many cities are back in the 60s and 70s, the ice and snow have melted, and electricity and water service have mostly been restored. But widespread damage remains: burst pipes that must be replaced; crops and livestock that died in the cold; business equipment that was destroyed; and the loss of more than 30 lives.”
  • Biden tells the world ‘America is back.’ The world isn’t so sure,” by Anne Gearan and Ashley Parker: “It’s increasingly clear that Biden cannot simply sweep up the broken diplomatic china and restore the world order that reigned when he was vice president. There is one simple reason: Allies know Trumpism could always come back, either in a 2024 bid by Trump himself or from another presidential hopeful offering a similar pitch.”

… and beyond

  • Last exit from Afghanistan,” by The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins: “Afghanistan presents Joe Biden with one of the most immediate and vexing problems of his Presidency. If he completes the military withdrawal, he will end a seemingly interminable intervention and bring home thousands of troops. But, if he wants the war to be considered anything short of an abject failure, the Afghan state will have to be able to stand on its own.”
  • This Army lieutenant colonel has built a playbook to kill the ‘cancer’ of sexual assault in the ranks,” by Task and Purpose’s Haley Britzky: “Army Lt. Col. Scott Stephens wasn’t always like this. Stephens — the commander of the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade — has become a leading voice on the issue of sexual harassment and assault at a time when the Army, along with the rest of the Defense Department, is coming to terms with the truth: The military has a problem. But he’ll also be the first to tell you that he was likely part of that problem as a young male soldier.”

The first 100 days

The Senate is expected to take up the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill as early as mid week.
  • “While House passage of the legislation had been all but assured, the outlook is trickier in the Senate, where moderate Democrats have raised questions about a number of provisions, including the structure of the state and local aid,” Erica Werner and Jeff Stein report. Given the Senate's 50-50 split, Democrats can pass the legislation without any GOP votes only if they stay united and Vice President Harris breaks the tie.
  • Time is ticking: Democratic leaders and the White House want the bill passed by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits expire.
  • It's also unclear how the Senate will handle the $15 minimum wage provision under the budget reconciliation process: “The action in the House came after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the $15 minimum wage in the legislation is not permitted under Senate rules. House Democrats included it anyway, and it’s not clear how the issue will get resolved.”  
  • Nearly two dozen House members want Biden and Harris’s help in keeping the minimum-wage provision in the bill. In a letter, the lawmakers cited two precedents, from 1967 and 1975, in which the vice president, acting as the president of the Senate, overruled the Senate parliamentarian. They asked Harris to do the same, but White House officials have so far signaled that they will respect the parliamentarian’s ruling. (John Wagner)
  • Senior Democrats abandoned a backup plan to increase the minimum wage through a corporate tax penalty, Jeff Stein reports.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren will introduce new legislation to apply a 2 percent tax on individual net worth above $50 million.

Net worth above $1 billion would get an additional 1 percent surcharge, the Times reports. Warren’s proposal is among the top revenue-raisers Democratic leaders are considering to offset Biden’s costly campaign proposals on infrastructure, education, and other initiatives.

The Senate is moving on some Biden nominees. 
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to advance Biden’s nomination of Merrick Garland as attorney general this afternoon.
  • The full Senate is poised to approve the nomination of Miguel Cardona as education secretary today.
  • Neera Tanden’s nomination, however, remains frozen. While her name hasn’t yet been listed on the Senate’s weekly schedule, the White House keeps saying it backs her. “We remain committed to fighting our hearts out for Neera Tanden," Psaki told "Fox News Sunday."
The president will meet virtually with Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador this evening. 
  • AMLO plans on proposing a new Bracero-style immigrant labor program that could bring 600,000 to 800,000 Mexican and Central American immigrants a year to work legally in the U.S., the AP reports. A Biden administration official declined to say whether Biden will back the proposal.
  • A history lesson: The original Bracero program allowed Mexicans to work temporarily in the U.S. during World War II labor shortages and for a couple of decades after that.
Biden hailed Amazon workers pressing to unionize in Alabama in an unusual sign of support. 
  • Biden tweeted a video saying workers should be able to make their decision in the election without pressure from the company, Jay Greene and Eli Rosenberg report. Although Biden didn’t name Amazon in the video, he made it clear that he supports the union drive. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
  • The move was a major break with historical precedent and a sign of his commitment to a campaign promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”
The White House won’t release virtual visitor logs. 
  • While the administration is releasing the names of those who visit the White House in person, it doesn’t plan on divulging the names of attendees of virtual meetings, which are the primary mode of interaction until the pandemic eases, Politico reports. Watchdogs say the White House has to do this in order to keep the public informed.
  • Government watchdogs are also complaining that the White House’s comment line is shut down and that there are no citizen petitions on the White House’s website. They’ve also pointed out that Biden is yet to hold a news conference of his own, beyond the White House press briefings.

Quote of the day

“Do you miss me yet?” Trump asked the crowd at CPAC, just five weeks after he stepped out of the White House. 

The future of the GOP

The future of the GOP may be divided. 

“After days of insisting they could paper over their intraparty divisions, Republican lawmakers were met with a grim reminder of the challenge ahead on Sunday when former President Donald J. Trump stood before a conservative conference and ominously listed the names of Republicans he is targeting for defeat,” Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman write

  • Trump at CPAC promised to not start a third party to compete against the GOP. “We are not starting new parties,” he said. “We have the Republican Party. It is going to unite and be stronger than ever before.”
  • Despite his calls for unity, he also named every Republican who supported his second impeachment and called for their ousting, the Times reports.
  • A CPAC straw poll found that 68 percent of those at the conference said they want Trump to run again in 2024. Without Trump as an option, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis led the field with 43 percent, followed by South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem with 11 percent. Former vice president Mike Pence was at 1 percent in the poll with Trump removed.
Republicans seek to rewrite Jan. 6 by pushing false and misleading accounts of Capitol assault.
  • “The campaign to minimize or deny the events of Jan. 6 has been weeks in the making, with the efforts to muddy the waters about what happened and who participated taking shape on pro-Trump television networks while rioters were still on the grounds of the Capitol,” Mike DeBonis and Jeremy Barr report. “Six weeks after the attack, some are taking advantage of fading memories and unanswered questions to portray the riot in a different, more benign light.”
  • Tucker Carlson, for example, used his Fox News program last week to try to convince his audience that the attack didn’t constitute an “armed insurrection.” Last week, during the first public appearance of top Capitol security officials before lawmakers, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) spent most of the hearing reading a firsthand account suggesting the violence was perpetrated by a small cadre that included left-wing extremists.
  • Pro-Trump forces also pushed the lie that antifa and other far-left groups were behind the attack. “Within hours [of the attack], a narrative built on rumors and partisan conjecture had reached the Twitter megaphones of pro-Trump politicians,” the Times reports. “Nearly two months after the attack, the claim that antifa was involved has been repeatedly debunked by federal authorities, but it has hardened into gospel among hard-line Trump supporters, by voters and sanctified by elected officials in the party.”
In his first public appearance since leaving office, former president Donald Trump further cemented his dominance over the Republican Party. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Hot on the left

Where Jill Biden drops by for coffee can make quite the statement. “Ajay Brewer was all the way across town from his coffee shop, Brewer's Cafe, when he got an urgent call from his wife about an unexpected visitor. First lady Jill Biden, and her entourage of staff and Secret Service, had stopped in to get a cup of drip coffee,” Jada Yuan reports. “It was her third ‘casual’ pit stop as first lady. … So what did it all mean? Maybe the first lady wanted to support small businesses. Maybe she wanted to signal to Black Americans that President Biden was serious when he said his administration would not abandon them. Maybe she just likes places that are touted as having some of the best French macarons and coffee in their respective towns. … But Biden clearly knows the power of a photo op.” 

Hot on the right

The president of a California teachers union who led the fight for school closures was seen dropping his child off at a private school. Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, was spotted dropping his child off for in-person instruction at a preschool, drawing accusations of hypocrisy, Fox News reports. "There are major differences in running a small preschool and a 10,000 student public school district in terms of size, facilities, public health guidance and services that legally have to be provided," Meyer said in a statement.  

Tracking vaccines, visualized

This week in Washington

Biden will meet virtually with the Mexican president at 4:30. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will participate in today's press briefing. 

In closing

John Oliver explained how police raids have grown more common, despite having few guardrails: