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The Daily 202: Biden is due for a news conference. But they can be risky.

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with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Today, we look at prospects for a news conference with President Biden. But don’t miss the latest on the administration’s first talks with China, Republicans heading for the southern border, and the efforts to get millions more vaccinated. Send me links to politics or policy stories you think deserve more attention! And tell your friends to sign up here.

President Biden will hold his first formal news conference before April Fools’ Day, the White House says. Even if he held one today, it would be the latest any new commander in chief has faced a formal question-and-answer session with the press corps in a century.

His aides know that the delay doesn’t resonate much outside the Beltway. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain retweeted a former Hillary Clinton adviser’s mocking point that not doing a news conference won’t cost Biden.

For 20 years, presidential aides have been telling me that the news conference is high risk, low reward a setting in which reporters largely set the agenda, questions can come out of left field, and one revealing comment or misstep from the president can define the exchange. 

But that’s just it. The traditional news conference is important in part because it’s something a president can do in service of transparency and accountability even though it may not be obviously good for his political fortunes.

Aides swat away questions about why Biden has not held a news conference earlier by saying his priorities have been getting the pandemic under control and unleashing the economy. “That's where his time, energy, his focus has been,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said March 5. 

It’s true Biden has a lot on his plate.

Millions of vaccine doses are going into millions of American arms, but a complete return to normal or normal-adjacent life is months away. The economy has sprouted hopeful green shoots, but vast numbers of jobless Americans still struggle. Iran and North Korea are ignoring entreaties to reengage negotiations over their worrisome nuclear programs. A big decision looms on whether to withdraw America’s forces from Afghanistan. There’s a crisis at the border with Mexico. And the administration faces its first talks with China this week.

It’s hard to see how a solo news conference would tax Biden’s ability to confront those issues. The White House certainly felt confident enough in his ability to manage both when he went to Milwaukee last month for a CNN town hall, taking questions from members of the public and follow-ups from Anderson Cooper. 

And he has hardly been invisible. The White House is quick to note he has done about 40 informal question-and-answer sessions since Jan. 20. He has done a few solo interviews Feb. 3 with People Magazine, Feb. 8 with CBS, for instance.

One recurring rejoinder to calls for a Biden news conference has been that his White House restored daily briefings by the press secretary, often accompanied by an administration subject-matter expert. “Those briefings are informative, not forums for White House lackeys to attack journalists,” The Washington Post editorial board said when it weighed in on March 7 with “[i]t’s past time for Biden to hold a news conference.

Briefings are good. Mostly. But one longstanding joke among the White House press corps is that they can also be a venue for getting replies more than answers.

Formal presidential press conferences are different, and a moment from one of Psaki’s briefings shows why. On March 9, she turned away a question about the number of migrants crossing the southern border, directing a reporter to the Department of Homeland Security because “it's not our program.” She declined to explicitly call on DHS to answer the question.

Can a skillful politician duck any question? They can try. But when a president does it in a formal press conference, rather than a brief Oval Office Q-and-A, drowned out by aides screaming “thank you, press,” people take notice.

And on issue after issue, reporters would rather hear from the president the person with whom the proverbial buck famously stops in a setting in which they at least notionally can set the agenda. They want his sense of urgency about what is happening at the border, his criteria for using military force, his assessment of whether the next big thing, after the American Rescue Plan, should be infrastructure or immigration or something else.

And they will likely ask about other news of the day.

Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist specializing in presidential communications, points to a July 22, 2009 press conference with President Barack Obama as an example of the riskiness of such exchanges.

Obama opened with a statement on the health-care debate that would ultimately yield the Affordable Care Act. The bulk of the dozen or so questions he took was on that topic. But it was his response to the final question that drew the most attention.

Obama was asked about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at his home in Cambridge. In his answer, the president said the police had “acted stupidly” and added “there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.” The comment dominated the coverage and ultimately led to the so-called “beer summit.”

Now, a little real talk.

Presidential news conferences are hardly the apex of White House coverage. Reporters might get a sought-after moment on TV, or finally get an answer to a question they have been asking for weeks. But by definition, they don’t get scoops there. 

And any conversation about Biden’s reticence has to acknowledge that President Donald Trump’s regular question-taking yielded a constant flood of half-truths and outright lies on a wide range of subjects. Quality matters at least as much as quantity.

That goes for reporter questions, too.

On that score, the news conference format can also bring in reporters from outlets that are not regularly in the briefing room, usually regional or specialized journalists, who have a different perspective from the regular crowd.

Will reporters ask smart, probing questions on important issues and get answers that matter to Americans beyond the Beltway? Will Biden shed light on his next priorities, or which issues he thinks can wait until later in his presidency? We won’t know until this news conference happens.

What’s happening now

The Senate is poised to confirm Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as interior secretary today at 5:30 p.m., making her the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet. 

Two men were charged and arrested for “assaulting U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick with bear spray during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot,” Spencer Hsu and Peter Hermann report. Authorities “have not determined whether the exposure caused his death. Julian Elie Khater, 32, of Pennsylvania, and George Pierre Tanios, 39 of Morgantown, W.Va., were arrested Sunday and are expected to appear in federal court Monday.” 

The fence around the Capitol will slowly shrink: 

Derek Chauvin’s attorney asked for continuance and a change of venue in George Floyd’s murder case. The attorney, Eric Nelson, “asked the judge overseeing the case to delay the trial and reconsider a change-of-venue motion, saying he was ‘gravely concerned’ the $27 million civil settlement announced last week between the city of Minneapolis and the Floyd family has tainted the jury pool,” Holly Bailey reports. Nelson “questioned the ‘suspicious timing’ of the settlement and argued it was ‘highly prejudicial’ against his client.”

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • “‘We want to be educated, not indoctrinated,’ say Trump voters wary of covid shots,” by Dan Diamond: “Be honest that scientists don’t have all the answers. Tout the number of people who got the vaccines in trials. And don’t show pro-vaccine ads with politicians — not even ones with Donald Trump. That’s what a focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump voters insisted to politicians and pollsters this weekend, as public health leaders rush to win over the tens of millions of Republicans who say they don’t plan to get a coronavirus shot."

… and beyond

  • Navy probe finds contractor charged in Capitol insurrection was well-known Nazi sympathizer,” by CNN’s Marshall Cohen: “Federal prosecutors revealed Friday that the Navy conducted its own internal investigation into Timothy Hale-Cusanelli that uncovered numerous incidents where he promoted racist and sexist views. The Naval Criminal Investigation Service interviewed 44 of his colleagues and 34 of them said he held ‘extremist or radical views pertaining to the Jewish people, minorities and women.’”
  • Can Cyrus Vance, Jr., nail Trump?” by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer: “If the tax records contain major revelations, the public probably won’t learn about them anytime soon: the information will likely be kept secret unless criminal charges are filed. … The investigative phase of the Trump case will likely be complete before Vance’s term ends, leaving to him the crucial decision of whether to bring criminal charges. But any trial would almost surely rest in the hands of his successor.”

The first 100 days

Biden will kick off a week of promotion for the $1.9 trillion relief package with White House remarks at 1:45 p.m.. 
  • He and other administration officials will travel around the country this week promoting the measure.
  • Democrats are already counting on using the stimulus as a political weapon. Democrats, haunted by the 2010 midterms, are eager to point out that Biden’s relief measure is more popular than Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus plan, according to polling, the Times’s Jonathan Martin writes.
  • Republicans, meanwhile, have shown little appetite to campaign against the package, since Trump once also aggressively advocated for direct payments, one of the tangible benefits in the Democrats’ law. “It’s difficult for congressional Republicans to portray one of the main elements of the Democrats’ bill as socialism when the de facto leader of their party is an enthusiastic supporter of wealth redistribution,” Martin notes.
The White House will unveil a $1.5 billion publicity campaign aimed at boosting vaccine confidence. 
  • “This television, radio, and digital advertising blitz, set to kick off within weeks, will focus on Americans outright skeptical of vaccines’ safety or effectiveness as well as those who are potentially more willing to seek a Covid-19 immunization but don’t yet know where, when, or how,” Stat News reports.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is pushing a global minimum tax as the White House looks for revenue to help pay for Biden’s domestic agenda. 
  • The effort to establish a global minimum tax on multinational corporations, “which would involve a fraught and challenging global negotiation of tax laws, could prove one of Yellen’s biggest policy legacies if it succeeds. It could also prove central to Biden’s presidency,” Jeff Stein reports.
  • “The administration is expected to raise taxes at least partially to pay for its other big-ticket spending priorities,” Stein writes. “A key source of new revenue probably will be corporate taxes, which [Trump] sharply cut in 2017. Although he has not proposed entirely reversing Trump’s cut in the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, Biden has said he would aim to raise potentially hundreds of billions more in revenue from big businesses.”
  • Experts, however, say raising the U.S. tax rate could damage America's competitiveness, because countries worldwide have cut tax rates to attract investment. “Yellen is working to curb [the practice of cutting rates] through an effort at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in which more than 140 countries are participating,” Stein writes. “The goal is for countries to agree in principle to a minimum corporate tax rate — although it would be nonbinding — that would make it harder for multinational corporations to play countries off each other by threatening to leave,” Stein writes.
Tony Fauci warned against lifting coronavirus restrictions too soon. 
  • Fauci told Fox News yesterday that the pace of vaccinations is improving while new cases in the U.S. plateaued, but warned that we could experience a surge like Europe if restrictions are lifted too fast. “They always seem to be a few weeks ahead of us in the dynamics of the outbreak. Then they plateaued because they pulled back a bit. They thought that they were home-free and they weren’t. And now they’re seeing an increase,” he said.
  • In today’s edition of “Where are they now?”: Deborah Birx, Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, has taken a job at a Texas air purifier maker. The Dallas-based Active Pure says its purifiers clean covid-19 from the air “within minutes and from surfaces within hours,” Reuters reports. Birx joined as chief scientific and medical adviser.
Republicans are heading to El Paso to highlight Biden’s border crisis.
  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is hoping to draw attention away from the relief package by leading a delegation of a dozen GOP House members to the U.S.-Mexico border, John Wagner reports.
  • “Over the weekend, the Biden administration announced it is deploying the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the border to help care for the thousands of unaccompanied migrant teens and children who are arriving and being packed into detention cells and tent shelters,” Wagner notes.
  • “There are now 4,276 [unaccompanied teens and] children in U.S. custody, up from about 3,400 [earlier last week]. It is a 25% increase, which sources tell ABC News is troubling and could lead to the kind of environment last seen during the 2018-2019 surge, in which six migrant children died in U.S. custody.”

ICE and members of the border community are at odds over the release of detainees with covid-19. “Advocates and county officials say they had no idea ICE was dropping detainees with covid off at the bus stop, while ICE says it is the agency’s protocol to notify local authorities ahead of time,” Jon Gerberg and Maria Sacchetti report. “While the advocates agree that detainees diagnosed with covid-19 should be released from detention so they can seek better medical care, failing to coordinate those transfers with health officials and nonprofits is a danger to public health, they said.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and other members of the Progressive Caucus are urging the Biden administration to stop the practice of ICE contracting with state and local jails to detain immigrants. (Colby Itkowitz)

Quote of the day

“Biden promised us!” wailed a migrant woman at the border after being told that she wouldn’t be able to cross into the U.S., per the Times.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to Japan and South Korea, part of the Biden administration’s first Cabinet-level trip abroad.  
  • “Concerns about China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region will take center stage,” in their visits, the AP’s Mari Yamaguchi writes. “The two secretaries will hold so-called ‘two plus two’ diplomatic and security talks on Tuesday with their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.”
  • “Blinken and Austin are also expected to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, as well as the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the situation in Myanmar after its military coup,” Yamaguchi writes. “Later Tuesday, they will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is expected to visit Washington sometime in the first half of April to meet with Biden in person.”
  • Blinken will not visit China, but he will meet senior Chinese officials in Alaska on his way back to D.C. Austin will visit New Delhi for meetings with Indian leaders.

Trump, post-presidency

Top lawyers have abandoned Trump over the years, but he still has two in his corner. One of them is Rudy Giuliani’s protege. 
  • Alan Futerfas and Marc Mukasey are representing Trump in two separate New York investigations which could lead to a historic prosecution of the former president,” Bloomberg News’s Greg Farrell reports.
  • “Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor, has the higher profile of the two. … In New York legal circles though, Mukasey is perhaps best-known for being the protege of Rudy Giuliani,” Farrell writes. “Mukasey says he hasn’t spoken to Giuliani for two years and distances himself from his mentor’s most recent work for their mutual client. ‘He went his way and I went mine,’ said Mukasey. ‘I did not, and would not ever, get involved in election-related cases.’ ”
Officials in the Georgia secretary of state’s office found the recording of Trump’s call with a state investigator in a trash folder on her phone. 
  • “The discovery of the call comes after state officials originally told CNN that they did not think audio of the call existed. The call added to the examples of Trump's extraordinary efforts to push false claims of widespread voter fraud and influence Georgia election officials,” CNN reports. “The audio file of the December 23 call between the former President and investigator Frances Watson was discovered as the Georgia Secretary of State's Office responded to a public records request.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, reemerged in a WSJ op-ed offering the Biden administration some advice on the Middle East. 
  • “The Biden administration is making China a priority in its foreign policy, and rightly so — one of Mr. Trump’s greatest legacies will be changing the world’s view of China’s behavior. But it would be a mistake not to build on the progress in the Middle East,” writes Kushner, who during his time in the White House was infamously tasked with bringing peace to the region. “While many were troubled by the Biden team’s opening offer to work with Europe and rejoin the Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, I saw it as a smart diplomatic move.”

Hot on the left

As Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) faces calls to resign, New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul treads lightly, the WSJ’s Jimmy Vielkind reports. “One person who spoke to her said the lieutenant governor didn’t feel it would be her place to weigh in. ‘She basically is saying that she’s the last person who should offer an opinion on this because she would appear to be self-interested,’ the person said.” 

Hot on the right

A sheriff who flew a Trump flag on a patrol boat violated a ban on partisan political activity, officials said. “At a campaign boat rally on Oneida Lake in August, Oswego County Sheriff Donald Hilton was photographed by the Post-Standard aboard a sheriff’s office boat providing security, with the banner depicting President Donald Trump’s face superimposed over an American flag. Hilton, a Republican, acknowledged that an attendee gave deputies the flag and he approved its exhibition, drawing criticism from residents and other officials, as well as an investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel,” Meryl Kornfield reports.  

How much taxing drivers by the mile would cost you, visualized

This week in Washington

The White House’s relief package “victory tour” begins today with Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff visiting Las Vegas. Harris will visit a vaccination site and the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas while Emhoff will visit a food relief organization and meet community members to promote the plan. 

First lady Jill Biden will visit Burlington, N.J., today to tour an elementary school.  

President Biden will join the tour tomorrow and travel to Delaware County, Pa. The president and the vice president will meet up Friday to travel to Georgia as part of the tour. 

In closing

John Oliver examined Tucker Carlson, “a man that gives Tuckers an even worse name than they already have”: