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The Daily 202: Biden, an Afghan war skeptic, must decide how long to leave U.S. troops in the country

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Today, we look at President Biden's Afghanistan conundrum. But don’t miss the latest on the president's approach to shoring up Obamacare and fighting child poverty. Send me links to politics or policy stories you think deserve more attention! And tell your friends to sign up here.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s unannounced visit to Afghanistan this weekend is likely to increase pressure on President Biden’s team to say whether they will keep a May 1 deadline for ending America’s nearly two-decade presence there.

As a candidate, Biden promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” As president, he has not explicitly endorsed the timetable and has even signaled skepticism about it.

Sticking with the May 1 date “could happen, but it is tough,” he told ABC News in an interview last week. Biden suggested he might decide U.S. forces must stay longer, though “I don't think a lot longer.”

The decision about whether to leave could tell us a lot about how Biden views his national security obligations and about his relationship with the Pentagon, where top brass have argued for nearly 20 years that now is not the time to leave.

In Kabul, Austin declined to say whether the Taliban had met the conditions, under a deal inked by President Donald Trump in early 2020, for the U.S. withdrawal to proceed. He said the policy was under review and Biden would make the final call.

“Everyone is really desirous of a responsible end, a transition to something else,” the secretary told reporters, adding America and her partners were eager for “a negotiated settlement to the war.”

While the Taliban has not attacked U.S. or NATO forces in Afghanistan since signing the agreement with the Trump administration, some U.S. officials have pointed to Taliban attacks on Afghan forces to say they aren’t keeping their end of the bargain.

We'd really like to see that violence come down,” Austin said. “And I think if it does come down, it can begin to set the conditions for, you know, some really fruitful diplomatic work.”

The withdrawal question has mostly faded from view at home amid an incendiary debate over immigration, the accelerating vaccination campaign, passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package and other issues higher on voters’ minds.

But for the Afghan people and their beleaguered government, the 2,500 U.S. troops there as well as their NATO comrades in arms, and for American critics of open-ended overseas entanglements, it remains an important question that will shape Biden’s efforts to redefine the United States’ relationship with the world.

In the White House, Biden has long been an Afghan war skeptic.

My colleague Greg Jaffe reported in February 2020 that the future president urged President Barack Obama not to surge troops into Afghanistan, faxing him a memo in longhand over Thanksgiving weekend in 2009.

On another occasion, Biden “only had a few seconds with the president, and he used them to press Obama to think about the possibility of failure in the months ahead. Would his ego allow him to concede that his war strategy wasn’t working? Would he stand up to the generals who would muster mountains of data and insist that they needed just a few more months or a few thousand more troops to make it work? Biden was sure the strategy would fail.”

As president, Biden is now the one who must weigh these sorts of questions.

Would he be okay if the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, a reporter asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki in late February.

“No, I don't think he would say he'd be okay with that,” she said.

What about: How will the Taliban respond if the May 1 deadline slips?

As my colleague Dan Lamothe noted in his dispatch from Afghanistan with Austin, the Taliban has darkly warned for a “reaction” if that happens.

Austin declined to respond to that message, but noted he met with Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. 

“I'm confident in his ability to accomplish his mission with the resources he has, and I have great confidence in his ability to protect our troops,” the secretary said.

Lamothe also noted Austin’s visit followed Turkey’s announcement on Friday “that it will host a peace summit in April that was requested by the Biden administration in an effort to jump-start negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.” The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has "said he will attend if Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s top leader, also does.”

NBC News recently reported Biden is considering keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until November, something Austin branded “speculation” during a Saturday stop in India but did not explicitly deny.

What’s happening now

The U.S., Canada, Britain and the E.U. will today announce an array of sanctions on China over what U.S. officials called a genocidal campaign against Uyghur Muslims, Politico’s Nahal Toosi reports. “The sanctions are expected to vary in type, and will include Global Magnitsky economic sanctions on individuals alleged to be involved with the mistreatment of the Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China. The EU this morning approved sanctions against four Chinese officials involved in the internment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs. The coordinated campaign of sanctions comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his way to visit European officials in Brussels.”

The Supreme Court will consider restoring the Boston Marathon bomber’s death sentence. “A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit had agreed with [Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev’s lawyers that the judge in his trial did not adequately vet potential jurors for bias,” Robert Barnes reports. “The appeals court ordered a new penalty-phase trial to determine whether Tsarnaev should be executed for the attack that killed three people and wounded hundreds of others in April 2013. The case will set up a dilemma for the Biden administration. The government asked the court to take up the case when Trump was in office, and his Department of Justice was aggressive in restarting the federal death penalty. Biden has said he opposes capital punishment. But his lawyers did not withdraw the petition at the Supreme Court, where justices have spent months considering whether to intervene.” 

New U.S. coronavirus infections are beginning to rise after months of decline. Experts attribute the increase “to the growing reach of new variants and widespread pandemic fatigue after a year of public health restrictions,” Erin Cunningham reports. “In Florida, a state where coronavirus measures are lax, authorities in Miami Beach declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew this weekend as large crowds of rowdy spring break revelers turned violent and disruptive.” 

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • The rioter next door: How the Dallas suburbs spawned domestic extremists,” by Annie Gowen: “Hope for Trump's return is fervent in Frisco and across the north Dallas suburbs, an area of rapid growth and rapidly increasing diversity. Nineteen local residents have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. … Many of the rioters came from the ‘mainstream of society,’ according to the FBI's Dallas field office. … Their groundless claims are being fed by conservative politicians and from the pulpits of large, powerful evangelical churches with teachings that verge on white nationalism, both motivated by fear that they are losing a largely White, conservative enclave that views these changes with suspicion.”

… and beyond

  • Offer Iranian freedom fighters the connectivity Beijing wants to take away,” write Victoria Coates and Robert Greenway, former top advisers to Trump on the Middle East, in an op-ed for Newsweek: “The Iranian regime is shutting down the internet yet again this month. … Tehran is methodically implementing a repressive playbook, imported at great expense from Beijing: first, label protesters as criminals; second, shut down the internet to prevent information from getting in or out; third, detain, torture and murder with impunity until the uprising is exhausted. But this time, the United States has the technology, resources and capacity to circumvent this oppression via satellite-provided internet, and give the Iranian opposition the ability to communicate freely. Deploying this capability would send the strongest possible message to the region and the world that America stands with those fighting for their freedom.”
  • On federal death row, inmates talk about Biden, executions,” by the AP’s Michael Tarm: “Biden’s silence has them on edge, wondering whether political calculations will lead him to back off far-reaching action, like commuting their sentences to life in prison and endorsing legislation striking capital punishment from U.S. statutes.”
  • High-income tax avoidance far larger than thought, new paper estimates,” by the WSJ’s Richard Rubin: “The top sliver of high-income Americans dodge significantly more in income taxes than the Internal Revenue Service’s methods had previously assumed, according to forthcoming estimates from IRS researchers and academic economists. Overall, the paper estimates that the top 1% of households fail to report about 21% of their income. … For the top 0.1%, unreported income may be nearly twice as large as conventional IRS methodologies would suggest.”

The first 100 days

New in The Post, Biden quietly created a huge social program tackling child poverty. 
  • An unlikely coalition of Democrats, including Sens. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) “mounted an 11th-hour push in the final weekend before the American Rescue Plan for Biden to go big on tackling child poverty,” Annie Linskey reports. “This under-the-radar success created what could be the most consequential piece of the $1.9 trillion package — one that, if made permanent, could approach the impact of the programs established under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.”
  • The program will now likely have a profound impact, Linskey writes, since it “expands the federal child-rearing subsidy by 50 percent — and parents of toddlers will get even more. … Crucially, the new money takes the form of cash payments, not tax cuts, so even people who don’t make enough to pay taxes will get aid.”
  • That approach aligns the United States far more closely with European-style wealth redistribution, according to both supporters and detractors,” Linskey notes.
  • The initiative, however, will expire in a year, “all but ensuring it will be a major issue in the midterms.” The measure, thus, raises a central question: Are the politics of big government back?
  • “Democrats already are pushing to include an extension of the program in the president’s next budget package,” Linskey reports. “Beyond that, Democrats hope American families will get used to receiving their checks, and they cite the Washington axiom that it’s hard to take something away from voters after they’ve started receiving it.”
  • Republicans, meanwhile, have not made the measure “a focus of attack,” pivoting instead to casting the broader package as a “boondoggle that includes billions in spending unrelated to the pandemic.  … The Biden administration is even eyeing potential support from the political right, where conservatives have pitched ideas similar to the Biden child tax credit.”
  • Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) plan, for example, is even more generous than Biden’s for parents of the youngest children. He’s even argued it could reduce abortions. “This is to help the pregnant women who are concerned about the financial circumstances of bringing a child into the world,” Romney said. “Providing a monthly stipend to someone who is pregnant is very much a pro-life consideration.”
Biden is moving quickly to establish his vision for Obamacare and reverse Trump measures aimed at weakening it. 
  • “In his first two months in office, Biden has taken several steps to bolster the landmark health reform law, which marks its 11th anniversary on Tuesday, and to embed it even more firmly in the nation's health care system,” CNN’s Tami Luhby reports. “Former President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak today about how the ACA has benefited Americans and how the Democrats' $1.9 trillion relief package, which Biden signed into law earlier this month, has strengthened the law.”
  • “Aided by the stimulus package, the Biden administration is making these moves even before its top health officials are in place. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was only confirmed on Thursday, while the President's pick to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, has yet to go before the Senate.”
  • Biden also “signed a presidential memorandum in late January to reverse restrictions on abortion domestically and abroad.”
The field is narrowing for Biden’s possible budget directors. 
  • “Ann O’Leary, a prominent Democratic policy expert, has withdrawn from contention to be Biden’s budget director,” Tyler Pager writes. Her exit refocuses attention on whether the White House will pick Shalanda Young, the front-runner for the position after Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination weeks ago. Biden, however, has yet to nominate Young, who is instead expected to be confirmed this week as deputy OMB director. The White House has said it will make her acting head of the agency until a permanent candidate is found.
  • And while Young has the backing of both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, not everyone is lining up behind her. Some are noting the lack of Asian Americans in top Biden administration posts. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), head of the Senate Budget Committee, recommended Biden pick Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute. Sonal Shah, an Obama White House alumnus, is also under consideration.
The Senate is poised to confirm Marty Walsh (D) as labor secretary, bringing Biden’s Cabinet one step closer to completion. 
  • “He is expected to easily win confirmation from the full Senate, drawing votes from both sides of the aisle,” John Wagner reports.

Quote of the day

“Law enforcement will go through the work that they need to do, but we all know hate when we see it,” said Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), rejecting FBI director Christopher Wray’s view that “it does not appear” that the Atlanta shooter was racially motivated. 

The future of the GOP

Trump said he'll make a decision “sometime later” about whether to seek the presidency and touted a list of the officials he thinks are the GOP's future 
  • Among them: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem and former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who is now a gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas.
  • “The Republican Party is stacked,” he said  in an episode of the podcast “The Truth With Lisa Boothe” that debuted today, John Wagner reports.
  • “Trump touted the ‘really good job’ DeSantis is doing in Florida. Hawley, who was among those who led the challenge to the electoral college results on Jan. 6, drew Trump’s praise for his ‘courage in going after big tech.’ And Trump offered kind words for Cruz, despite the ‘nasty’ relationship they had as adversaries during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.”
  • Noteworthy from our colleagues Cat Zakrzewski and Aaron Schaffer in today's Technology 202: “Trump plans to launch his own social network in two to three months.” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller confirmed the plans. Major tech companies suspended the former president's accounts in the fallout of the Jan. 6 Capitol attacks. 
GOP presidential hopefuls are cranking up campaigns that could vaporize if Trump decides to run. 
  • Mike Pompeo and Rick Scott are headed to Iowa this week and next, followed by Tim Scott in mid-April. Mike Pence plans to visit the early primary state of South Carolina, while DeSantis appears to be conducting a soft launch in his home state of Florida,” Politico’s David Siders reports. “Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Iowa Republican Party, said he’s never seen so much interest so early in a presidential election cycle.”
  • “But what’s truly unique about the Republicans’ pre-presidential primary is the contingent framework that is unfolding around it. It’s a primary — but a wholly conditional one,” Siders notes. “The entire Republican ecosystem [is] building strategies and structuring the race around the single question of whether former President Donald Trump runs again.”
  • “‘He’s got them in a box,’ said Matt Moore, former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party. Or as one prominent Republican operative in New Hampshire put it, ‘I would almost call it a shadow campaign. … It’s kind of operating in this silo as if he doesn’t run again.’”
DeSantis is positioning himself as Trump’s White House heir.
  • “‘I think he's the odds-on favorite to be the next president,’ if Trump doesn't run again, said Joe Gruters, a Florida state senator and chairman of the state Republican Party,” NBC News reports.
  • Declarations like Gruters’s “can't be discounted as parochialism in a state where two other Republicans — Sens. Marco Rubio and Scott — nurture White House ambitions. Nationally, the picture is similarly encouraging for DeSantis.” Florida has, “since the beginning of the pandemic, seen fewer per-capita coronavirus cases and deaths than many states, including many that instituted the more restrictive measures. And DeSantis' poll numbers are rebounding a year ahead of his re-election bid.”
Meanwhile, in Georgia, Trump is looking to take down GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
  • “Trump is expected to endorse Rep. Jody Hice in a campaign to unseat” Raffensperger, Politico reports. “Trump publicly seethed about Raffensperger after the November election, when the secretary of state refused to support Trump's false claims that Georgia's 16 electoral votes were stolen from him.”

Hot on the left

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is holding a hearing today on a bill establishing D.C. as the nation’s 51st state. “The issue, once a fanciful dream of local activists, now enjoys near-unanimity inside the Democratic Party,” our colleagues Mike DeBonis and Meagan Flynn report. "Proponents argue D.C. statehood is necessary because the city's majority-Black and Brown population is disenfranchised by their lack of representation in Congress. D.C. would be the only plurality-Black state in the country if statehood were to pass,” CBS News reports

The bill has 215 co-sponsors, and it will likely pass the House. The bill could have a better shot this time in the closely divided but Democratic-run Senate.

Hot on the right

Pro-impeachment House Republicans are objecting to a Democratic probe of a narrow Iowa race. “In a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over the weekend, nine of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump asked her to call off an investigation into the results of the House race in Iowa’s 2nd District. After a recount, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks was declared the winner over Democrat Rita Hart, with a difference of just six votes out of 400,000 cast,Marianna Sotomayor reports

“The House Administration Committee has launched a probe of the case. The letter from the nine Republicans effectively seeks to flip a common Democratic complaint on its head: that the House’s examination of the race serves to bolster false claims by Trump and other Republicans that the country’s elections are rife with fraud.” 

History of the Japanese Lantern in the Tidal Basin, visualized

Happy Spring! Washington’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival was online this weekend so no crowd gathered for the traditional lighting of the 17-century stone lantern on the Tidal Basin. William Neff reports on this unusual symbol of Japanese history and culture.

Today in Washington

Biden and Vice President Harris will resume their “Help is Here” tour this week. The vice president will today travel to Jacksonville, Fla., to meet Florida leaders at a food pantry and visit a vaccination center. 

The president will meet virtually today with the Senate Democratic Caucus, which is having a retreat. They are expected to discuss the next steps in Biden’s legislative agenda. 

In closing

John Oliver tackled plastics in his show, explaining why recycling isn't the solution we all think it is: