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The big idea

Biden will ask Putin to stay out of Ukraine, under threat of sanctions

In a secure video call on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, President Biden plans to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday against any future Russian military action against Ukraine, amid growing worries in Washington and Kyiv that Moscow is planning a new invasion.

It’ll be their first conversation since July 9, after a summit in Geneva a month earlier, a U.S. official confirmed. The discussion will draw considerable scrutiny from European allies who have promised to support Ukrainian territorial integrity, as well as from Republicans who have preemptively blamed what they call Biden’s weakness for encouraging dangerous adventurism from Moscow.

Biden will broach other topics like energy supplies Moscow uses as diplomatic leverage and ransomware attacks suspected to originate in Russia, according to U.S. officials. The Kremlin says Putin also aims to discuss Afghanistan, Iran and Libya.

But the crisis in Ukraine is expected to dominate, as the West warily watches tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the former Soviet republic’s eastern border. The United States has not floated any military response to an invasion, but publicly envisioned “high impact” economic sanctions, to which Putin has largely proven impervious in the past.

“What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” Biden told reporters Friday as he set out of Camp David.

Both parties: Let’s do sanctions

The administration’s efforts to put together a sanctions package should Russia invade make for interesting domestic U.S. politics. There is bipartisan congressional support for sanctions to halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that would carry Russian natural gas to Europe, enhancing Putin’s ability to use his country’s energy resources as leverage over American allies.

Biden has condemned the pipeline project but waived U.S. sanctions meant to halt it. (Former president Donald Trump denounced Nord Stream 2, but waited until his last days in office to impose sanctions.)

It’s not clear whether the sanctions package the administration is now cobbling together would actually target the project, which Ukraine also opposes.

Aggression?

The president’s words came as my colleagues Shane Harris and Paul Sonne reported “U.S. intelligence has found the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive as soon as early next year involving up to 175,000 troops.”

“Details of the U.S. intelligence provide a picture that Secretary of State Antony Blinken began to outline this week on a trip to Europe, where he described ‘evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine’ and warned there would be severe consequences, including high-impact economic measures, if Russia invaded,” Shane and Paul reported.

“‘We don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide,’ Blinken told reporters in Europe a day before meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. ‘We must prepare for all contingencies.’”

Russia has cast the escalating standoff as a fight over whether the NATO alliance conceived to deter the Soviet Union will absorb Ukraine as a member, and thereby get another toehold on Moscow’s doorstep. Putin invaded Ukraine — and annexed its Crimea region — in 2014, after the ouster of a Moscow-aligned regime in Kyiv.

Putin has demanded “legal guarantees” NATO won’t expand eastward. I don't accept anyone's red line," Biden said Friday.

The Associated Press has reported Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could also speak this week, citing sources close to the Eastern European leader. Washington could send a signal by holding that call before the Biden-Putin exchange.

Hard feelings

The conversation comes with U.S.-Russia relations at such a low point that both sides cheer on the most minimal breakthroughs.

My colleague John Hudson reported Friday on a potential thaw that could ease a staff shortage at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, “after years of diplomatic tit-for-tat retaliations that have left the embassy badly understaffed, down from 1,200 personnel five years ago to just 120 now.”

“If enacted, the breakthrough could stave off a dire situation forecast by U.S. officials in which the embassy would be all but shuttered and would no longer support core diplomatic functions such as sending cables to Washington informing it of the political, economic and security situation in Russia,” John reported.

Here’s the killer detail in John’s report: “The embassy is so shorthanded that many staff have had to take on extra jobs. U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan, for example, learned how to mix solutions to clean the restrooms and also how to work a floor buffer in case staff support further diminished during the pandemic.”

What's happening now

Trump SPAC under investigation by financial regulators

“The publicly traded company that plans to merge with former president Donald Trump’s social media company is under investigation by two federal regulators, which have asked for stock trading information and communications,” Aaron Gregg reports.

Senate aims to complete vote on Build Back Better before Christmas

“Writing to lawmakers on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) affirmed the aggressive timeline [to vote and approve a roughly $2 trillion package to overhaul the nation’s health care, education, climate, immigration and tax laws before Christmas], warning that there are ‘more long days and nights, and potentially weekends,’ ahead of the chamber in order for it to finish a fuller array of legislative legwork before the end of the year,” Tony Romm reports.

NYC to impose vaccine mandate on private sector employers

“The vaccine mandate for private businesses will take effect Dec. 27 and is aimed at preventing a spike in COVID-19 infections during the holiday season and the colder months, [Mayor Bill de Blasio] said on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe,’” the Associated Press reports.

‘Absolute liars’: Ex-D.C. Guard official says generals lied to Congress about Jan. 6

“In a 36-page memo, Col. Earl Matthews, who held high-level National Security Council and Pentagon roles during the Trump administration, slams the Pentagon’s inspector general for what he calls an error-riddled report that protects a top Army official who argued against sending the National Guard to the Capitol on Jan. 6, delaying the insurrection response for hours,” Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan and Meridith McGraw report.

‘Rife’ cocaine use reported in U.K. Parliament

“A report in Britain’s Sunday Times said more than 10 areas on the Westminster estate, which spans several sites for lawmakers, government officials and their staffs, tested positive for traces of cocaine. Areas included the women’s bathrooms nearest to [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson’s office and those near the office of Home Secretary Priti Patel. The paper reported that cannabis was also ‘being used openly’ within the vicinity,” Jennifer Hassan and William Booth report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Sidney Powell group raised more than $14 million spreading election falsehoods

“Records reviewed by The Washington Post show that Defending the Republic raised more than $14 million, a sum that reveals the reach and resonance of one of the most visible efforts to fundraise using baseless claims about the 2020 election. Previously unreported records also detail acrimony between [Sidney] Powell and her top lieutenants over how the money — now a focus of inquiries by federal prosecutors and Congress — was being handled,” Emma Brown, Rosalind S. Helderman, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Josh Dawsey report.

  • Enduring impacts: “The split has left Powell, who once had Trump’s ear, isolated from other key figures in the election-denier movement. Even so, as head of Defending the Republic, she controlled $9 million as recently as this summer, according to an audited financial statement from the group. The mistrust of U.S. elections that she and her former allies stoked endures. Polls show that one-third of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — believe that Trump lost because of fraud.”

… and beyond

What does the U.S. owe separated families? A political quandary deepens

“News reports citing anonymous officials revealed that the Biden administration was negotiating settlements that could provide up to $450,000 per person for the migrant parents and children. Top Republicans and right-wing pundits erupted at the potential figure, often presenting it as set in stone and calling it ‘insane’ or ‘almost impossible to believe,’” the New York Times’s Jeremy W. Peters and Miriam Jordan report.

Conservative leaders and commentators quickly assailed the idea of paying large settlements to undocumented people. In the process, they turned an episode that had been an embarrassment for the Trump administration into a political quandary for Democrats who want to make amends to the separated families, but who are also increasingly wary of their image of being lax toward undocumented migrants.”

The rise of omicron

Omicron possibly more infectious

A new study says omicron shares genetic code with common cold coronavirus, possibly making it more infectious.

“The omicron variant is likely to have picked up genetic material from another virus that causes the common cold in humans, according to a new preliminary study, prompting one of its authors to suggest omicron could have greater transmissibility but lower virulence than other variants of the coronavirus,” Amy Cheng reports.

Fauci says early reports encouraging about omicron variant

“U.S. health officials said Sunday that while the omicron variant of the coronavirus is rapidly spreading throughout the country, early indications suggest it may be less dangerous than delta, which continues to drive a surge of hospitalizations,” the Associated Press’s Gene Johnson reports.

The Biden agenda

Biden unveils anti-corruption strategy

“The Biden administration on Monday released the first-ever U.S. government strategy for countering corruption, kicking off a week of policy initiatives pegged to the inaugural ‘Summit for Democracy’ on Dec. 9-10,” Axios’s Zachary Basu reports.

Why it matters: Joe Biden is the first president to establish the fight against corruption as a core national security interest. Critics say corruption not only robs a nation of its core resources but discourages citizens believing in the rule of law.”

China attacks ‘US-style democracy’ prior to Biden summit

“China has launched a campaign to discredit what it calls US-style democracy in advance of the first of Joe Biden’s two ‘summits of democracy’ later this week,” the Guardian’s Vincent Ni reports.

“Over recent days, official Chinese media outlets and diplomats have made a string of scathing attacks on the US governing system, calling it ‘a game of money politics’ and ‘rule of the few over the many.’”

Biden’s plan for a ‘no drama’ December

“The desire to take some drama out of December is born from a belief that the president’s job approval has been hurt by the perception that he has failed to bring order to government. Inside the White House and among allied Democrats, there is a frustration that their legislative achievements have been overshadowed by the messy process required to pass them. There is a strong desire to avoid Hill fights — within their party and with Republicans — and reassure people that they are doing everything they can on the coronavirus pandemic as the new Omicron variant emerges, according to sources with knowledge of the White House’s thinking,” Politico’s Laura Barrón-López reports.

Maryland’s current and proposed congressional districts, visualized

“One of the country’s most gerrymandered congressional maps is slated to be redrawn next week when Maryland lawmakers return to Annapolis, over the protests of Republicans who charge the proposed map still significantly favors Democrats. Debate over the lines comes as the legislature is poised to select a new state treasurer and take pivotal votes on parole reform, immigration and public transit.”

Hot on the left

Dems plot escape from Biden’s poll woes

Most Democrats are worried that Biden’s flagging polling numbers — with an approval hovering in the low 40s — will lead to a thrashing at the ballot box. With historical headwinds and a GOP-dominated redistricting process already working against them, they fear that unless Biden pulls out of his current slide, Congress will be handed to the Republicans in next year's midterms,” Politico's Heather Caygle, Burgess Everett and Jonathan Lemire report.

“Even the party’s own polling has the president in the red. A poll from House Democrats’ campaign arm earlier this month showed the president down in battleground districts across the country, with 52 percent of voters disapproving of the job he’s doing, according to three party members briefed on the data.”

Hot on the right

Confusion at Natanz

“All anyone can say with any certainty is that something very strange happened near the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz this past Saturday evening,” the National Review's Victoria Coates writes.

“Disturbances at Natanz have become somewhat commonplace recently, with a major fire in July 2020, followed by an explosion in April 2021 that cut off power to the facility. Both of these episodes appeared to be deliberate sabotage designed to set back Iran’s nuclear program, either by Israel or another of Iran’s neighbors who has a much clearer view of what a nuclear Iran would mean for their region. Whatever went down Saturday night about twelve miles from the enrichment plant is far murkier, and may signal that we are entering a new and even more dangerously unstable phase of the Islamic Republic’s long pursuit of a nuclear weapon.”

Today in Washington

At 2 p.m., Biden will deliver remarks on prescription drugs.

In closing

Politico's Tevi Troy published this rundown of some of the most recent, most brutal nicknames for folks in the White House — and a history of some standouts from past decades.

Here’s an absolute whirlwind of a paragraph:

“According to former Trump press secretary Stephanie Grisham’s I’ll Take Your Questions Now, White House staffers used to call Ivanka Trump “the Princess,” while Grisham called Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner “the Slim Reaper” for his tendency to destroy other staffers’ work. First lady Melania Trump, who tended not to leave the White House much, was called “Rapunzel” by the Secret Service. White House aide and current congressional candidate Max Miller was nicknamed “the Music Man” because he used to play soothing songs, including “Memory” from Cats, to calm Trump down during presidential tantrums.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.