The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump inby Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver
Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report. Happy Valentine’s Day! Our newsletter will take a day off on Monday for Presidents’ Day, but check your inbox again on Tuesday as we get you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch. Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver are the daily co-creators, so find us @asimendinger and @alweaver22 on Twitter and recommend the Morning Report to your friends. CLICK HERE to subscribe!
Two branches of government and Republicans usually supportive of President Trump took steps on Thursday to try to rein him in.
Those steps — public pushback from Attorney General William Barr and the decision by eight GOP senators to join Democrats to try to limit Trump’s power to spark a war with Iran — may ultimately fail to have the desired effects.
But the rebukes, coming weeks after Trump’s impeachment and in the midst of the president’s reelection campaign, reveal the unease with which some in his party view a chief executive who believes his own impetuous decisions and tweeted grievances are appropriate and effective.
Barr took the unusual step of publicly defending the Justice Department against the president’s persistent efforts on Twitter to punch down into the law enforcement and judicial systems to defend longtime ally Roger Stone, who will be sentenced by a federal judge next week on seven criminal counts. Trump’s stinging public criticisms aimed at the federal prosecutors who argued the case, the jurors who found Stone guilty and the judge who will decide Stone’s punishment forced Barr to take a stand (The Hill).
In an interview on Thursday with ABC News, Barr said the president’s incendiary tweets aimed at the department “make it impossible for me to do my job.” Barr said he was prepared to accept the consequences of speaking out against the president. “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” he said.
Democrats have accused Barr of politicizing the Justice Department to placate Trump, a charge he will be asked to address next month when he appears before the House Judiciary Committee.
In the wake of the president’s tweets this week, one prosecutor resigned from his Justice job and three others withdrew from the Stone case. Trump withdrew his nomination of a fifth lawyer, who was involved in managing the Stone prosecution at the department, on the eve of her scheduled confirmation hearing on Thursday for a post in the Treasury Department. The lawyer, Jessie Liu, resigned from the administration after the president’s action (NBC News).
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking to reporters on Thursday, said the president’s involvement in Stone’s sentencing amounted to “abuse of power” (The Hill). It was yet another version of the charge leveled against Trump by House Democrats during impeachment. Senate Republicans, with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), voted to acquit the president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a staunch Trump defender, cautioned the president once again to resist tweeting and to pay attention to Barr’s frustrations.
"I think the president should listen to his advice,” he said on Fox News. “If the attorney general says it's getting in the way of doing his job, the president should listen to the attorney general.”
Trump’s wrath on Thursday also struck former White House chief of staff John Kelly, who criticized the president at a public event on Wednesday night, during which he defended an impeachment witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified during the House hearings and was subsequently reassigned at the president’s behest from the White House National Security Council to the Defense Department (The Associated Press).
The torrent of bitterness and social media score-settling on Thursday drew former national security adviser John Bolton into the fray to defend Kelly. Both men had public clashes with the president before their exits from the West Wing, and Bolton has authored a tell-all memoir about his tenure with Trump, scheduled for publication next month.
Bolton tweeted that Kelly “has always served his country faithfully. Conservatives especially have a responsibility to reject baseless attacks upon him.”
The Washington Post: Trump wants U.S. attorney John Durham, who is conducting an internal investigation ordered by Barr into the origins of the Russia probe, to “finish his work soon” to be able to use “whatever Durham finds as a cudgel in his reelection campaign.”
Reuters: Trump criticizes juror who found Stone guilty.
The Washington Post: Trump assails Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who will sentence Stone on Feb. 20.
The Hill: A federal judge and colleague of Judge Jackson argues that pressure from Trump will have no effect on Stone’s sentencing.
Other West Wing developments: Longtime Trump aide Hope Hicks, 31, who left the White House for a top communications job with Fox Corp. in California two years ago, is returning to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to work with senior adviser Jared Kushner on projects that include the president’s reelection (The New York Times). … Trump’s former personal assistant, John McEntee, who departed the White House in 2018 over a security issue, is returning to serve as White House personnel director (The Hill).
LEADING THE DAY
CONGRESS: The Senate voted on Thursday to rebuke the president and limit his ability to launch military action against Iran, with eight Republicans joining with Senate Democrats to do so.
The upper chamber voted 55-45 on the resolution, introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), which would require Trump to secure congressional approval for military actions against Iran and for U.S. troops to be pulled from military engagement within 30 days if approval is not granted.
The bipartisan measure comes a week after the Senate voted to acquit Trump after a months-long impeachment effort by Democratic lawmakers, which some senators believe could derail future bipartisan efforts on legislation. As Jordain Carney writes, GOP senators who supported the resolution maintained that their support was not aimed at Trump, but rather at the Congress’s need to regain warmaking authority it has handed over to the executive branch.
“This is not about the presidency. … This really is about the proper allocation of power between the three branches of government,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah, seen below) told reporters. “Congress has ceased to be in the war declaration driver's seat.”
Along with Lee, those who crossed the aisle to support the war powers resolution were Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Susan Collins (Maine), Todd Young (Ind.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Bill Cassidy (La.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
Before the vote, Trump publicly pushed for the Senate GOP to remain united against Kaine’s resolution, saying that voting for it would “show weakness.” Trump is expected to veto the resolution.
> Federal Reserve: Senate Republicans expect that the president will withdraw his nomination of Judy Shelton to serve on the Federal Reserve Board amid opposition from members of both parties on Capitol Hill that has derailed her confirmation.
The White House has not made a final decision, as Alexander Bolton and Sylvan Lane report for The Hill, since Trump would first need to sign off on the reversal. However, GOP sources say it would be “desirable” for her to withdraw from consideration and that her nomination is “trending” in that direction.
“She’s being pulled,” said one Republican senator. Senate GOP aides have indicated to colleagues privately that they expect Shelton to withdraw, according to one Senate aide familiar with the discussions.
Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, tweeted on Thursday that Shelton’s nomination will not be pulled, adding that the White House still expects her to make it through the Senate Banking Committee.
If Shelton pulls out, she would be Trump's third Fed nominee derailed by Senate Republican opposition, and the fifth overall, counting informal picks as well. Among the five, the highest profile examples are entrepreneur Herman Cain and conservative commentator Stephen Moore, both of whom didn’t even get formally nominated.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
POLITICS & CAMPAIGNS: For months, former Vice President Joe Biden has reigned supreme in South Carolina surveys, making the state a firewall for his campaign. However, after disappointing performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, that idea could be falling apart as it could be an uphill climb to take home the Palmetto State on Feb. 29.
While more than half of Democrats likely to vote in South Carolina are African American, some Democrats and political observers are skeptical that Biden will have the momentum he needs to win the state, according to reporting by The Hill’s Max Greenwood, to be published later today. Analysts believe the two-plus weeks until the state’s primary may be too long to wait for the former vice president to transform his political fortunes.
Along with time being a factor, so are some of Biden’s opponents as Tom Steyer has spent heavily in the state and has invested heavily in his South Carolina operation, with polls putting him in the top three in the primary.
Niall Stanage: The Memo: Super Tuesday looms large for Democrats.
The New York Times: Biden needs black voters to lift his campaign. But he has competition.
The Washington Post: As concerns grow, Nevada Democrats clarify how their caucuses will work.
The New York Times: The Andrew Yang exit interview.
> Bloomberg support grows: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on the rise in the Democratic primary field, and he’s turning to some of his friends on Capitol Hill to help out.
As Scott Wong reported Thursday, Bloomberg has spent years building relationships with lawmakers and it’s coming in handy as establishment Democrats are buzzing about the wealthy businessman as he throws a wrench in the primary battle. In recent days, Bloomberg has pulled four endorsements from lawmakers, including three Congressional Black Caucus members, bringing his number of House endorsements to 13.
“I see him gaining in the polls. I see him running a real campaign. I see him putting out messages into paid communications, speaking to people around tackling climate change, addressing gun violence in America … balancing our budget, lowering our deficit and running a government that is inclusive and for everybody,” said Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) days after she endorsed Bloomberg. "He’s surging in the polls, and people are responding to the fact that, when they see numbers, he is beating Trump by the most."
As Scott reports, Bloomberg has made a concerted effort to court congressional Democrats in recent weeks, according to several lawmakers who have been contacted. Members of Bloomberg’s team have been texting and calling nonstop, listening to ideas and laying out the former mayor’s vision and strategy to win the wide-open primary and oust Trump in November.
“His campaign is probably the most effective when it comes to reaching out to members of Congress, relentlessly and thoughtfully,” said one House Democrat who is backing another 2020 Democrat but has received several phone calls from Bloomberg’s people.
Peggy Noonan: Mike Bloomberg could pull it off.
NBC News: After split results, Democrats brace for a long primary. Just what Bloomberg wants.
The Associated Press: Bloomberg once blamed the end of ”redlining” for the 2008 financial collapse.
The Hill: Sanders faces rare union opposition in Nevada over “Medicare for All.” MORE: Nevada's powerful Culinary Union won't endorse.
More politics: Trump told Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera during a podcast interview on Thursday that he would be open to voting for a gay presidential candidate (The Hill). “I think that it doesn't seem to be hurting Pete ‘Boot-edge-edge,’” Trump continued, using a phonetic pronunciation of former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg's (D) name. “It doesn’t seem to be hurting him very much.” Flashback: In 2019, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, Jerri Ann Henry, resigned when the conservative LGBTQ group endorsed Trump for a second term (The Hill).
The Morning Report is created by journalists Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver. We want to hear from you! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. We invite you to share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!
Democrats: The road to kumbaya, by Scott Goodstein, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/39xkg47
We’re witnessing the reemergence of the moderate Democrat, by David Ignatius, columnist, The Washington Post. https://wapo.st/2SocNyM
WHERE AND WHEN
Hill.TV’s “Rising” program features news and interviews at http://thehill.com/hilltv or on YouTube at 10:30 a.m. ET at Rising on YouTube.
The House is in recess until Feb. 25.
The Senate will hold a pro forma session on Monday at 1:45 p.m. The full Senate will return on Feb. 24 after the Presidents’ Day break.
The president participates in a meeting with the National Border Patrol Council at 2:30 p.m. in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. At 4 p.m., Trump and first lady Melania Trump depart for Florida to spend the long weekend.
Vice President Pence speaks at 11 a.m. to the winter gathering of the board of directors of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has begun a trip to Germany, Senegal, Angola, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Oman through Feb. 22. Today he’s in Munich to lead a U.S. delegation to the Munich Security Conference, where he will speak and hold meetings with counterparts.
You’re invited to The Hill’s upcoming newsmaker events:
➤ Building the Dream: Charlotte, N.C., Feb. 20, with Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.), state Sen. Paul Newton (R) and others to discuss financial hurdles to homeownership. Join live in Charlotte or join the livestream.
➤ America's Opioid Epidemic: Lessons Learned & A Way Forward, Feb. 26, in Washington, exploring access to treatment for opioid addiction and recovery issues with Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.). RSVP today!
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➔ Coronavirus: Is the COVID-19 outbreak in China spiking or waning? This is a key question as China’s tally of infections shifted this week to include more cases. As China’s medical system in Hubei province strained this week to care for patients, ill people with observed respiratory symptoms were included in tallies rather than restricting counts to those people who tested positive for a genetic fingerprint of COVID-19 (CNBC).
The statistics are up: 1,384 deaths worldwide and at least 64,447 cases of infection (including 15 in the United States), according to the latest data.
Authorities in China reported for the first time that as of Tuesday’s tally, 1,716 health workers have been infected and six died, with the number of infected medical personnel climbing (Reuters).
Japan on Thursday reported its first death, a woman in her 80s who was hospitalized with pneumonia early this month. Japan also reported 44 more cases of COVID-19 on a quarantined cruise liner docked near Tokyo, and identified two other unrelated cases, suggesting COVID-19 may be spreading inside the country (The Associated Press).
The global hunt for a vaccine that could protect humans from the effects of COVID-19 is underway, and the University of Pittsburgh announced on Thursday that the World Health Organization (WHO) approved its vaccine research center among other research centers to work with samples of the new coronavirus (CBS). Immunologists and virologists with the National Institutes of Health cautioned this month that the development of a vaccine or other therapies effective against COVID-19 will take researchers time to develop.
Meanwhile, the State Department issued a statement on Thursday expressing concern that the virus could infect North Koreans, whose shared border with China, authoritarian government, poverty and scarce medical facilities complicate risks for its 25 million people. The Trump administration urged North Korea to approve assistance from international aid and health organizations “to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus.”
➔ Earth facts: If you thought January seemed balmy this year, you were not imagining it. The planet has never recorded a warmer January over the course of 141 years of maintaining official climate records, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In fact, January was the 421st consecutive month that racked up temperatures nominally above the 20th-century average. The contiguous United States had its fifth warmest January on record, and Hawaii had the second highest temperature departure on record for January, while Alaska experienced its coldest January in eight years (The Hill).
➔ Astronaut’s best friend: It’s Valentine’s Day, which calls for some puppy love. After her human spent 328 record-breaking days in space, dog LBD (“Little Brown Dog”) greeted returning NASA scientist Christina Koch with the kind of crazy, body-wiggling affection we all melt to see. Koch shared some reunion video, which of course went viral and appeared on every news network (CBS News). Take a look if you missed it!
And finally … Congrats to the Morning Report quiz masters!
⚾ A big shout-out to readers who appear as eager as we are for the start of baseball’s spring training. These fans of America’s pastime aced this week’s puzzle: Ki L. Harvey, James D. Wells, Phil Kirstein, Mary Miller, Margaret Gainer, Lara Rosner, Joseph Webster, Hazel Rosenblum, Michael Palermo, Allyson Foster, Ari Ezra, Stephanie Langsam, Mike Roberts, Rose DeMarco and Carol Katz.
They knew that three MLB teams made managerial changes in the wake of the Houston Astros cheating scandal that has rocked the sport
Stephen Strasburg held the largest pitcher contract in MLB history, albeit for about 33 hours before Gerrit Cole struck his monstrous deal with the New York Yankees..
The Washington Nationals share a West Palm Beach, Fla., spring training facility with the Houston Astros (of course).
Lastly, starting this season, relief pitchers must face at least three batters, a major change for the league.