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The Daily 202: Biden faces new tests with Middle East violence, pipeline hack

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with Mariana Alfaro

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President Biden faces a duo of crises this week the worst being deadly and escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians testing his leadership and his White House’s ability to grapple with events largely beyond his control.

If the dangerous and dramatic spike in Middle East violence arguably amounts to the most severe foreign policy trial Biden has faced to date, regional gas shortages stemming from the shutdown of a major pipeline shortly after a deeply disappointing jobs report are taxing his energies on the economy.

(The White House has publicly kept its distance from a third development the intra-party GOP warfare over the fate of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney  dismissing the inside-the-Beltway, headline-stealing drama as mere “family excitement.”)

Biden has faced other challenges in his first 100 days a sharp increase in the numbers of people trying to cross the southern border, for instance even as he gets solid marks in public polls for managing the pandemic and the economy.

But no White House likes TV images of lines at gas stations or the prospect of war in the Middle East involving Israel, still America’s closest ally in the region even if it’s increasingly the target of criticism from the president’s left flank. And such images still show that despite the modern bully pulpit, controlling the news cycle can be tricky (even when you’re sometimes able to do so with a tweet, as did former president Donald Trump).

In a statement, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) yesterday blamed Israeli “government-allied right-wing extremists” for the escalating violence and said “[t]he United States must call for an immediate cease-fire and an end to provocative and illegal settlement activity” by Israel.

Things are getting worse — my colleagues Steve Hendrix and Shira Rubin reported last night the violence “approached all-out war” yesterday.

Today, Shira and Steve report:

“Civilians in Israel and the Gaza Strip endured a second night of deadly rocket attacks and airstrikes as the worst violence in years between the Israeli military and Gaza militants continued to escalate Wednesday.

Even as airstrikes were launched and air-raid sirens sounded, Palestinian citizens of Israel poured into streets, burning cars and fighting police in scenes that recalled violent uprisings that rocked the country decades ago.”

The Biden administration has publicly called for de-escalating the conflict while ramping up telephone diplomacy over the past few days in an effort to defuse the volatile situation. That’s a test of this White House’s return to working with allies rather than often going at it alone as the Trump administration bragged it liked to do.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has spoken at least twice by telephone with his Israeli counterpart as well as senior officials from Egypt and Jordan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken to his Israeli counterpart and met with Jordan’s foreign minister.

Officials at the National Security Council and State Department say the United States has had many engagements with unspecified Palestinian leaders, though there have been no formal summaries relating what was discussed.

Most importantly, though, the president whose affection for Israel but mistrust of its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, go back years has yet to weigh in publicly. (He’ll almost surely be asked about the crisis at the next opportunity.)

Biden entered office looking to shift America’s national security focus away from the Middle East apart from attempting a return to the Iran nuclear deal, over Netanyahu’s objections and toward China, and convinced that peacemaking between Israeli and Palestinians risks, for now, being a waste of resources.

The administration has resumed U.S. support for the “two-state solution,” but Blinken testified at his confirmation hearing that “realistically, it is hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”

Nearer to home, the White House appeared to have been surprised by the speedy onset of gas shortages after suspected Russian hackers shut down the Colonial Pipeline in an extortionary ransomware attack on Friday.

Asked Monday whether the administration was looking at waiving the Jones Act a law requiring goods shipped between U.S. ports to be carried on U.S.-owned and operated vessels White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that was among a “range of options” for dealing with potential shortfalls.

“At this point in time,” she told reporters at her midday briefing on Monday, “we don't see a supply issue.”

A day later, my colleagues Taylor Telford, Will Englund and Rory Laverty reported:

“Lines of panicked drivers overwhelmed gas stations in the Southeast on Tuesday, as rising prices fed fears of shortages. …

In Atlanta, 1 of every 5 gas stations was reported to be out of fuel Tuesday evening. …

As of Tuesday, governors in North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia had declared states of emergency and taken steps to relax fuel transport rules to ease pain at the pump.”

From the White House, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm assured Americans: “It's not that we have a gasoline shortage, it's that we have this supply crunch, and that things will be back to normal soon, and that we're asking people not to hoard.”

And the press shop issued a statement insisting the administration “Has Launched an All-of-Government Effort to Address Colonial Pipeline Incident.”

It was vaguely reminiscent of another White House’s PR response, to another oil-related crisis, 11 years ago.

What’s happening now

House Republicans this morning ousted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership post for calling out Trump’s false election claims. 
  • “The voice vote to remove her as chair of the House Republican Conference underscored that the party will not tolerate disagreements with Trump, whose active support many argue is needed for the party to win the House majority in the 2022 midterm elections,” Marianna Sotomayor and Jacqueline Alemany report.
  • “If you want leaders who will enable and spread his destructive lies, I’m not your person, you have plenty of others to choose from. That will be their legacy,” Cheney told her Republican colleagues. “But I promise you this, after today, I will be leading the fight to restore our party and our nation to conservative principles, to defeating socialism, to defending our republic, to making the GOP worthy again of being the party of Lincoln.”
  • Cheney wasn’t the only one who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment, but most of the other 16 Republicans who did want to move on, Politico’s Burgess Everett and Melanie Zanona report. “They stand by their anti-Trump votes and oppose Cheney’s demotion, but they're focused on strengthening their party’s message against Democratic control of Washington.”
  • “But as much as her fellow Republicans who crossed the former president would prefer to keep their focus on Biden, some recognize that their silence runs the risk of ceding Trump more power. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who voted to convict, said his House colleagues' Wednesday vote on Cheney is ‘going to be perceived as President Trump dictating what the House does.’”
Cheney is expected to be replaced by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) but some don't think she's conservative enough. 
  • Rep. Ken Buck (R-Co.) told Alemany he expects that vote to be held on Friday, but said he won't be supporting Stefanik. Cheney, Buck said, “was canceled today for speaking her mind.” 
  • Stefanik has a much more moderate voting record than Cheney, Michael Kranish writes. Her switch “left onetime allies asking: How did the moderate, bipartisan version of Stefanik become one of the most stalwart believers in Trump-promoted falsehoods that have undermined faith in democracy?” Stefanik’s quest for power, Kranish notes, “has meant turning on some onetime allies, including the woman she seeks to replace.”
  • It was Stefanik, after all, who nominated Cheney for her leadership post. “Liz, I was very proud to nominate you as our conference chair . . . we think you are a huge asset in that role,” Stefanik said in 2019.
  • If Stefanik replaces Cheney, “the top three House Republican leadership posts will be held by lawmakers who voted not to certify Biden’s victory,” the Times notes
  •  Following the Cheney vote, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said she asked House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to “delay the replacement vote,” arguing that “there should be choices not predetermination.” 
  • Stefanik launched her bid to replace Cheney moments after the vote:

Biden still says he can work with McCarthy:

Trump weighed in because of course.
  • “Liz Cheney is a bitter, horrible human being. I watched her yesterday and realized how bad she is for the Republican Party. She has no personality or anything good having to do with politics or our Country,” he said in a statement posted moments after the vote. “She is a talking point for Democrats, whether that means the Border, the gas lines, inflation, or destroying our economy. She is a warmonger whose family stupidly pushed us into the never-ending Middle East Disaster, draining our wealth and depleting our Great Military, the worst decision in our Country’s history. I look forward to soon watching her as a Paid Contributor on CNN or MSDNC!”
  • Before the GOP meeting, Trump said Cheney “is bad for our Country and bad for herself.”
Cheney’s ouster drew praise from many Republicans. Others bemoaned the purge. 
  • “Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Tex.), a vocal Trump supporter, shared news of Cheney’s removal from leadership on social media with glee,” Eugene Scott writes. “Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) tweeted a schoolyard taunt: ‘Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye Liz Cheney.’” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Co.) said Cheney is “using her talking points to audition for a job as a CNN commentator.”
  • “But Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of the few Republicans who has joined Cheney in his criticism of Trump, cheered her on after she spoke on the House floor Tuesday. ‘I stand by Liz. I am proud of her,’ he said after the vote.” Former Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), in a Post op-ed, said: "Cheney has proved her fitness, and today it seems that adherents to the ‘big lie’ will cast her out. Hold your head high, congresswoman."
More than 100 Republicans and former Republicans are threatening to form a new party. 
  • The group is preparing to “release a letter this week threatening to form a third party if the Republican Party does not make certain changes, according to an organizer of the effort,” the New York Times’s Zach Montague reports. “The statement is expected to take aim at Trump’s stranglehold on Republicans, which signatories to the document have deemed unconscionable. ‘When in our democratic republic, forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism arise, it is the patriotic duty of citizens to act collectively in defense of liberty and justice,’ reads the preamble to the full statement, which is expected to be released on Thursday.”
  • The group includes former governors, ex-members of Congress and former Cabinet officials. Miles Taylor, a chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump, told CNN that the names will be unveiled tomorrow in what he said would mark a continuation of “the civil war within the GOP.” Taylor pointed to the vote to oust Cheney as an example of how the GOP has gone astray, Wagner reports. He said McCarthy has a misguided view about what the ouster will accomplish. “My message to him is the civil war within the GOP is not ending today. It is just beginning," he said.

Quote of the day

“The party is going to come back stronger and I’m going to lead the effort to do it," Cheney told reporters as she entered the Capitol this morning.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) spoke to reporters on May 12 after the House Republican Conference voted to oust her as conference chair. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Expert panel says mistakes led to coronavirus pandemic, but stops short of holding countries, leaders to account,” by Emily Rauhala: “The 13-member group, known as the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, delivered a [report that reconstructs] how early-warning systems failed and agencies faltered, giving the virus time to spread from the central Chinese heartland to the rest of the world, humbling empires and killing millions as it went. The experts conclude that the rules on emerging infectious threats are inadequate, that the WHO could have acted faster and that many governments ignored warnings — with disastrous results. They call for the creation of a new global health threat council, reforms to the WHO, updates to the rules governing emerging health threats and action on vaccine equity."
  • Key Trump officials face Congress with Capitol riot response under scrutiny,” by Karoun Demirjian: “Christopher C. Miller, who was the acting defense secretary at the time, will tell members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that he stands by ‘every decision I made that day,’ according to prepared remarks... The defiant stance from Miller probably will rankle Democrats on the panel, who are expected to demand a reckoning from the former officials, particularly Miller. ... The panel’s audience with Miller and former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen marks the first time that either has spoken publicly with lawmakers about the events of Jan. 6 and the steps they took to prepare for and respond to the insurrection.” 

… and beyond

  • Republican voters more pragmatic than their leaders,” by the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar: “As in Virginia, the lesson from Texas is that mainstream Republicans who assimilate populist themes into their own messaging can be acceptable to both party-first Republicans and Trump enthusiasts. ... There’s one major caveat, however, to the glimmers of GOP pragmatism: Trump himself. In many Senate primaries to come, he threatens to wreak havoc on the party’s best-laid plans.”
  • Michigan GOP Lawmaker floats bill to register, fine ‘fact checkers,’” by the Detroit News’s Beth LeBlanc and Craig Mauger: “The bill requires qualifying fact checkers to file proof of a $1 million fidelity bond with the Secretary of State's office, which will be tasked with developing the ‘form and manner of registration and filing.’ ”

At the table

Today, we’re having lunch with White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, talking about the machinery of getting President Biden’s message to Americans and the rest of the world. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Knox: Are there White House communications lessons from the Obama administration that you apply to the current White House?

Bedingfield: One thing that we really thought about is how we can better utilize the Cabinet in our communications efforts. I think one thing that we maybe didn’t do as effectively in the beginning of the Obama administration is really use the Cabinet to help share and spread our message. And I think what we have done effectively or I hope we have done effectively so far is to really take these talented people who are really critical pillars of our administration and used their expertise and their ability to communicate well and use it to make sure that we’re covering more ground.

Being able to use the Cabinet as primary spokespeople for our administration means we can put more people on local television, we can put more people on cable, we can put more people on broadcast, we can talk to more outlets. So I think that’s one lesson that we took from the communications efforts of the Obama administration.

Knox: It usually takes a little time to figure out what communications tech defines an administration, but it’s pretty easy this time around: Zoom. How different is it from a regular remote camera?

Bedingfield: Zoom has helped us. One of the things I think that we do effectively is we really, really lean hard on local TV. And we’re able to do that in part because we have a studio in the EEOB [Eisenhower Executive Office Building], a remote camera, and because we’re in the pandemic we can do it by Zoom. It’s easier for the stations. It helps us get into smaller markets, because the tech barrier to access is much lower. Everybody can use their laptop to get on Zoom.

That has been extremely useful and I think we’ve done something north of 400 local TV interviews with administration officials since we came into office.

It’s funny in terms of how we use Zoom, being able to do it here from the studio has actually lifted some of the pressure. Because across the course of the campaign for example there was the added pressure of, as everybody is now familiar with, making your shot look good, and making sure that you weren’t accidentally putting your small child on camera, or a family photo that you didn’t mean to put on camera. So being able to do it from a professional studio here, I think has eased the burden on a lot of people.

Knox: This administration has turned to quite a lot of local and regional media as you sell the president’s agenda. The figures I saw cited more than 400 interviews across something like 40 states. What 10 states have been left off this list and why?

Bedingfield: [laughs]. That’s a good probing question and not one I know off the top of my head.

We cast a very wide net. So what we try to do is make sure we’re speaking to all parts of the country, and that we’re speaking to communities that are impacted by whatever policy announcement we’re making, regardless of the demographics or the political makeup of that community or state look like.

I couldn’t actually tell you off the top of my head which 10 we haven’t hit yet, although after this conversation I’m going to go look and I’m going to make sure that we hit them this week.

The way we think about it is we look at what we’re announcing, and we look to see if there’s particular impact, or particular focus, somewhere in the country. And we prioritize getting an expert, or somebody who can really speak to how the policy is going to make a difference in people’s lives, and make them available to local outlets. Because at the end of the day local media is still one of the most trusted sources of information for people all across the country.

Knox: Your colleague Jen Psaki recently said there’s no satisfying the press when it comes to access. That’s broadly true, there’s certainly no satisfying me, but what struck me is she also said other administrations had made the mistake of trying. What does that mean, and does that shape transparency and access in the Biden administration?

Bedingfield: The way I think about it is there is a conversation that happens in Washington, amidst the national press corps, who are here. And then there’s a conversation that happens across the country in living rooms, at kitchen tables. 

Sometimes those conversations are aligned, but sometimes they’re not. 

I won’t put words in Jen’s mouth, but what I think she was saying is sometimes you can make the mistake of chasing what feels like a very important demand signal from the press corps on a given day, and you kind of miss the forest for the trees because tomorrow the demand signal from the D.C. press corps has moved on to something else.

The way I think about it is our challenge is to remain accessible and to remain open and we really prioritize that in our press office, in our communications office. We want to be available to reporters and we are committed to doing that all day, every day.

But we also don’t want to lose sight of what is it the president is trying to communicate? How is that landing amongst families across the country? And sometimes those two conversations are two separate conversations. We try to stay focused on what people out in the country are hearing.

I think that’s what she means. I think she means you can make mistakes if you, sort of, go too far down the myopic rabbit hole of whatever is animating the D.C. press that day.

To be clear, I’m not saying that those conversations aren’t important, or that the D.C. press isn’t critical in driving the national narrative about our politics. Don’t misunderstand, I’m in no way saying that.

But I’m just saying that I think successful communications is about keeping your eye on the horizon, and seeing the full field and understanding what people around the country are talking about. And that doesn’t always line up exactly with what the D.C. press corps is talking about.

Knox: Politico had a piece this week about this White House’s practice of insisting on approving or not approving quotes from administration officials for publication. I’ve never agreed to that and won’t start now but doesn’t it show mistrust in the president’s advisers and aides that they need this safety net?

Bedingfield: No, absolutely not. 

And I think that reporters who are well-sourced across the administration would tell you it leads to more transparency, not less. Largely, it’s used by people whose primary job is not necessarily talking to the press. They don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking to the press. Maybe it’s somebody who’s a policy expert, maybe it’s somebody who has incredible institutional knowledge. 

Having a conversation on background allows that person to speak freely and candidly. The reporter, as you well know, can use that information, can attribute it to a source at the White House, or whatever agency they’re talking to. So I think in many ways it facilitates more transparency not less.

The other thing I would say, more broadly, is we make ourselves available all day every day to reporters of all stripes. We have no problem speaking on the record, answering tough questions, talking about what the president is doing.

But allowing sources to speak on background so they can speak freely, in many ways I think that can often yield more transparency, not less.

Knox: But ‘background’ and ‘quote approval’ aren’t the same thing.

Bedingfield: For somebody who does not primarily speak with the press, they may convey something that, when they see it written out, they think ‘that’s not what I intended say, I was trying to make a specific point about the nuances of this policy issue and I did not convey what I was trying to convey.’

But it’s up to the journalist, right? Certainly, there are reporters who won’t accept those terms, and that’s fine, that’s perfectly fine. We work with those outlets, we work with those reporters just as often as we work with those who do background with quote approval.

It’s simply one technique in a host of many that we use to make sure that we are communicating with the press and with the American people.

The Biden agenda

Biden hosted the first meeting of his presidency with the top four congressional leaders. 
  • The 11 a.m. meeting came as Biden pushed his pair of $4 trillion spending packages and only hours after GOP lawmakers voted to oust Cheney from the conference’s leadership, Wagner reports. The group met in the Oval Office. Vice President Harris also planned to attend.
  • Biden will meet tomorrow with the lead Senate Republican negotiators. “Republicans, including [Mitch] McConnell, see Biden's attempts to work with them as ‘a backup plan,’ not his first choice, said a person close to McConnell,” NBC News’s Mike Memoli and Carol E. Lee report. "Until it's clear that they don't have the votes on their side for some of these priorities, they're not going to need to really collaborate with us," the person said. "Going with a more moderate approach is not their first priority."
Biden announced plans this morning to nominate a third slate of federal judicial nominees. 
  • Three of the nominees are for the appeals courts and three are for the district courts. The administration continued to tout the diversity of his picks, Wagner writes. Biden has now moved to fill 20 judicial vacancies, moving faster than his recent predecessors.
U.S. tariffs have led to a sharp decline in Chinese imports. 
  • They have also led to “significant changes in the types of goods Americans buy from China,” the WSJ’s Josh Zumbrun reports. “Purchases of telecommunications gear, furniture, apparel and other goods [have shifted] to other countries.” 
In the first action of its kind, the Biden administration asked the Mexican government to investigate reports of worker rights violations at a General Motors plant. 
  • “The move marks the first use of an innovative labor rights provision in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which took effect last year,” David Lynch reports. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the request. 

Hot on the left

Andrew Yang, who is leading the New York City mayoral race, apologized for his comments on Israel-Palestine after an onslaught of criticism. “A Muslim community group in Queens disinvited Andrew Yang from a Ramadan event on Tuesday and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez harangued him over social media amid mounting outrage over the mayoral hopeful’s public support for Israel’s deadly airstrikes on Palestinians this week,” the New York Daily News reports. In a statement, Yang said “support of a people does not make one blind to the pain and suffering of others.”  

Hot on the right

Four women say Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-Fla.) wingman, Joel Greenberg, pressured them to have sex, the Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberg reports. “Twelve women agreed [to talk] about their experiences with Greenberg and his friends under the condition of anonymity. All of them said it was their understanding that Greenberg … was paying them at least in part for sex, going as far back as 2013. ... None of the women the Daily Beast talked to used the phrase ‘sexual assault’ in their interviews. … Some women described platonic encounters where they still got paid. Others relayed that they had consensual sex for money. But some characterized their experiences as a trauma, and four women said Greenberg pressured them to have sex.” 

Meanwhile, Gaetz tried to dunk on Rep. Kinzinger, who has openly criticized him and Trump. Kinzinger hit back: 

Texas population boom, visualized

The GOP-controlled legislature is expected to use the state's population boom in ways that will benefit the party, Arelis R. Hernández and Griff Witte report.

Today in Washington

Biden will deliver remarks on the national coronavirus vaccination program at 3:30 p.m. 

In closing

Stephen Colbert reviewed some of the details in our colleague Carol D. Leonnig's new book on the secret service: