Morning Report

The Hill’s Morning Report – One day, two continents, words of war

AP/Evgeniy Maloletka

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Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday, 919,697; Tuesday, 922,473; Wednesday, 925,560; Thursday, 928,519; Friday, 931,741.

New shelling and ominous rhetoric associated with a run-up to war marked events in at least five countries on Thursday, all focused on Russia’s readiness to attack Ukraine. 

President Biden pronounced the risks of an invasion by Russia “very high” (USA Today), even as the Kremlin dismissed the West’s collective worries and warnings (Reuters). Biden will speak by phone this afternoon with trans-Atlantic leaders about the situation, the White House said. He spoke by phone about the Ukraine situation with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi late on Thursday. 

“My sense is this will happen within the next several days,” the president told reporters while emphasizing that Russia still had a diplomatic path.  

Meanwhile today, the Russian military announced that President Vladimir Putin will monitor a sweeping exercise of the country’s nuclear forces on Saturday that will involve multiple practice missile launches — a stark reminder of the country’s nuclear might as tensions with the West rise to the highest level since the Cold War (The Associated Press).  

Thursday’s shelling of a nursery school, one of several such incidents reported and blamed on Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine, was denounced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a “false flag” provocation, intended, he said, as a pretext for Russia to launch an attack (The Guardian and The New York Times).  

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday during a Brussels news conference warned that the Western alliance had “seen attempts” by Russia to stage a provocation in Ukraine as a tripwire for aggressive action. It was a nod to assertions by the Biden administration made public in recent weeks, drawn from what Washington and the British have said is key intelligence information. “We are concerned that Russia is trying to stage a pretext for an armed attack against Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said, adding there was “still no clarity, no certainty about Russia’s intentions.” 

WIRED: Using smartphones and social media, people on the ground are building an open source visual record of tanks rumbling across snowy ground, troops arriving, armaments in clear view near the Ukraine border. Nonprofit organizations search for and upload information that plots in real time movements of military equipment and troops all around Ukraine’s eastern flanks.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was on his way to a security conference in Munich on Thursday, made a swift detour to New York to address a U.N. Security Council meeting called by Russia. He said the United States believes Moscow might attack Ukraine “within the coming days.” 

Issuing a blunt challenge and reinforcing the West’s skepticism about Putin’s motives and repeated denials, Blinken urged the Russian government to “announce today with no qualification, equivocation or deflection that Russia will not invade Ukraine. State it clearly, state it plainly to the world,” he said. “In the coming days, the world will remember that commitment, or the refusal to make it” (The New York Times). 

The Kremlin insisted that it was withdrawing troops from border areas, a process it said takes time, and stated in writing that it was not planning an invasion. Blinken accepted a proposal to meet late next week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Amid fading hopes for a peaceful outcome from months of diplomacy, the State Department on Thursday confirmed that Russia last week expelled from Moscow Bart Gorman, the No. 2 American diplomat (The New York Times).

Vice President Harris arrived in Munich on Thursday to participate in a high-level global gathering beginning today focused on European security. She is scheduled to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this weekend (CNN).  

Some diplomats and other leaders gathered in Munich had broached the idea that Putin could opt to dig in for a long siege with everything short of ordering troops over the border — cyberattacks, assassinations, coup plots, cutting off trade — in hopes of toppling the Ukrainian government without triggering sanctions, reported David Sanger of The New York Times. Russia’s enthusiasm today for sudden nuclear exercises is perhaps an example. 

The United States and NATO conferred across two continents on Thursday to urge peace, to condemn Russia’s actions and warn of possible staged provocations by Putin’s regional allies. They will continue their outreach today. NATO prepared for Eastern Europe’s military defense, while Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, agreed to enter into an accord with the U.K. and Poland to combat Russian aggression (The Hill). A German army convoy of 130 soldiers and 60 vehicles reached Lithuania on Thursday, bringing almost half of planned reinforcements for the country’s German-led NATO battlegroup (Reuters).

 

 

More administration headlines: The United States is weighing whether to grant Temporary Protected Status to thousands of Afghan evacuees already in the country (The Hill). … The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday proposed a narrower, more “humane” definition of the types of U.S. public benefits an immigrant may potentially qualify to utilize (the “public charge rule”), used to determine whether migrants should be admitted to the U.S. (The Hill). … Biden, speaking in Ohio on Thursday, told voters in Lorain and the Cleveland area that the bipartisan infrastructure law he signed in November — with the support of embattled Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) —  will provide $1 billion to help clean up the nearby Great Lakes (The Hill).

 

 

LEADING THE DAY

POLITICS: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Thursday endorsed Harriet Hageman, the primary challenger looking to unseat Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), in the ongoing Trump-led push to oust the incumbent member.  

“After spending time with Harriet, it is readily apparent she will always listen and prioritize the needs of her local communities and is focused on tackling our nation’s biggest problems,” McCarthy told The Federalist in an interview. “I look forward to serving with Harriet for years to come.”  

McCarthy’s move is designed to give Hageman a financial boost against Cheney, who reported $7.1 million in donations as of the end of 2021, including $4.7 million in cash on hand. Hageman has raised $745,000, with only $381,000 in the bank.  

It also cements even further the bad blood between the two high-profile Republicans. Cheney was booted from her position as House GOP conference chairwoman in May in part due to McCarthy’s support. Two months later, she accepted a role on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.  

“Wow, she must be really desperate,” Jeremy Adler, a Cheney spokesman, told The Hill in reaction to the endorsement.  

Politico: Trump moves to close off Liz Cheney’s political escape hatch. 

> Time to testify?: Former President Trump, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr.  must comply with subpoenas issued by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) for their testimony in a probe into the family’s business practices, a New York state judge ruled on Thursday.  

Judge Arthur Engoron denied the Trumps’ effort to quash the subpoenas, rejecting the claims that James’s investigation is politically motivated and depriving them of their constitutional rights. 

“In the final analysis, a State Attorney General commences investigating a business entity, uncovers copious evidence of possible financial fraud, and wants to question, under oath, several of the entities’ principals, including its namesake. She has the clear right to do so,” Engoron wrote, dismissing Trump’s arguments that various comments by James about the ex-president undermine the legal basis for the probe. 

The Associated Press: Take the fifth? The choice could soon be Trump’s in New York probe. 

The Hill: Hillary Clinton tears into GOP, Fox News at New York Democratic convention. 

 

 

> Inflation politics: Biden took his show on the road on Thursday to Ohio as he ramps up his pre-State of the Union address messaging, with the economy and rising inflation top of mind. 

As NBC News notes, the president is expected to stress in the coming weeks that he understands the financial pain and suffering many Americans are facing due to rising prices, with voters not nearly as interested in hearing about the perceived policy victories notched by the White House in its first 13 months. 

According to The Hill’s Brett Samuels and Alex Gangitano, the effort is also part of an attempt to shift the sour public mood, with inflation, COVID-19 fatigue and an overall frustration with the state of the country hurting the party in power.   

The Hill: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.): White House acknowledges inflation is a major concern. 

The Associated Press: “The brand is so toxic”: Democrats fear extinction in rural U.S.

The Hill: Russia crisis threatens to worsen Biden’s gas price problem. 

> Abortion: Republicans in the Florida House of Representatives early Thursday approved a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, moving to tighten access to the procedure ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that could limit abortion rights in America.  

The GOP-controlled House passed the 15-week abortion ban after several hours of debate between Democrats who said the measure would impose an unnecessary burden on women and Republicans who said they were protecting the unborn (The Associated Press). 

The Washington Post: Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s approval rating drops amid concerns about crime.  

The Hill: Democratic New York Mayor Eric Adams‘s first budget leaves police funding flat.

BE IN THE KNOW

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IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

CONGRESS: The Senate on Thursday night passed a short-term spending bill to extend government funding until March 11, giving lawmakers three more weeks to strike a deal on a year-long omnibus spending package.  

Senators voted 65-27 to advance the package after days of pressure by conservative members for GOP lawmakers to stay in town as they tried to push through amendments to push back against COVID-19 mandates. However, all three amendments failed and were not adopted in the final legislation.  

Amendments offered by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would have defunded Biden’s federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates and schools that enforce COVID-19 vaccine mandates, respectively, failed as too many Senate Republicans missed the vote.  

The Senate voted 46-47 on Lee’s amendment, with four Senate Republicans — Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), James Inhofe (Okla.) and Mitt Romney (Utah) — absent. Cruz’s vote was defeated 44-49, with Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) voting with Democrats. Simple majorities were needed to pass both amendments 

A third amendment vote by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) calling for a balanced budget amendment was defeated 47-45. 60 votes were needed for it to pass.   

Biden is expected to sign the spending measure tomorrow before funding expires at midnight (The Hill). 

Politico: The White House throws cold water on a restaurant industry bailout.

> Who needs tickets?: House Sergeant-at-Arms William Walker announced Thursday that all members of Congress will be allowed to attend Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1.  

In a memo to all lawmakers and credentialed staff and press, Walker also laid out a number of COVID-19 safety measures in place for the event, including that all present in the chamber must wear an N95 or KN95 mask and obtain a negative COVID-19 test taken at the Capitol Visitors Center within a day of the speech, among other precautions. Proof of vaccination against COVID-19 is not required (The Hill). 

The speech will be Biden’s first State of the Union address and comes ten months after he addressed a joint session of Congress that was limited to about 200 individuals, with no senators or representatives having been allowed to bring guests. 

The Hill: White House chief of staff tries to pump up worried Senate Democrats.

 

***** 

CORONAVIRUS: It has been a winter that resulted in a stronger herd, even as the concept of “herd immunity” slipped away with this country’s vaccine resisters. Millions of immune systems in America now recognize COVID-19’s dominant omicron variant and are primed to fight it off, or even to do battle with another mutation of the coronavirus. The estimate is that 73 percent of the U.S. population has some immunity. Is it enough? (The Associated Press). 

The Atlantic: As the U.S. opens up, omicron recedes and pandemic restrictions fall away, millions of Americans with compromised immune systems are in limbo. Their worlds do not open up. 

Census data reveals that as omicron’s rampage fades, people are heading back to work, reinforcing an upbeat outlook for the U.S. labor market. Over the course of January, the number of people who said they were out of work because of COVID-19-related illnesses fell by 1 million (The Wall Street Journal). 

Masks: The Biden administration says the government will soon make medical-grade, high-quality masks available for children (CNN). … New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) on Thursday immediately lifted her state’s indoor mask mandate in a surprise announcement (The Associated Press). … Catholic schools in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C., next week will lift their school mask requirements (Washington Examiner). 

International: Police in Ottawa arrested two truck convoy protest organizers on Thursday night, determined to get tougher on instigators following weeks of public demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions, which have paralyzed the Canadian capital and challenged the authority of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. …  (The Washington Post). … Separately, Canada announced on Thursday it approved a COVID-19 vaccine by Novavax, a company based in Maryland. It’s the fifth coronavirus shot Canada has greenlighted (The Washington Post). … The United States plans to “surge” vaccine support to 11 African countries as a way to help populations in developing nations and reduce the emergence of new COVID-19 variants among the unvaccinated (The Washington Post). 

The Morning Report is created by journalists Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver. We want to hear from you! Email: asimendinger@thehill.com and aweaver@thehill.com. We invite you to share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE! 

 

OPINION

With war looming in Europe, a pause to clarify the stakes — and the responsibility, by The Washington Post editorial board. https://wapo.st/3sLAS3n 

How many of us just fake our confidence and calm? by Frank Bruni, columnist, The New York Times. https://nyti.ms/3oSKSGY

WHERE AND WHEN

The House meets at 10 a.m. for a pro forma session. The House returns to work Feb. 28 following the Presidents Day recess. 

The Senate convenes at 9 a.m. for a pro forma session. 

The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10 a.m. 

The vice president is in Munich. 

First lady Jill Biden will travel to Tampa, where she will speak at 1:15 p.m. with National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless at the Moffitt Cancer Center. She will fly to Miami, then speak at the Coast Guard Air Station at 4:30 p.m. with John Tien, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. They plan a private listening session with military families and a book reading event as part of the White House Joining Forces initiative. 

The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 2:30 p.m. 

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.

ELSEWHERE

NATIONAL PARKS: Last year’s visitor traffic to U.S. parks increased by 60 million over 2020, when COVID-19 shuttered some facilities. While some of the most well-known national parks had record visitation last year, numbers across the entire National Park System remained below pre-pandemic totals. Ahead of this year’s spring and summer seasons and a more upbeat outlook about travel this year, here’s a look at the 10 most visited park sites (The Hill). 

TESLA “PHANTOM BRAKING”: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that it received 354 complaints in the past nine months about sudden unexpected braking in Tesla vehicles, the latest safety probe faced by the electric vehicle maker. The agency is focused on two 2021 and 2022 Tesla Model 3 and Model Y. The NHTSA said a preliminary evaluation will affect approximately 416,000 vehicles. Owners say their Teslas have decelerated at highway speeds to react to “phantom,” or falsely detected hazards (The Washington Post).  

OLYMPICS: Eileen Gu, the 18-year-old San Francisco native competing for China in freestyle skiing events, took home the gold medal in the halfpipe on Friday, her third medal this Olympics after taking gold in big air and silver in slopestyle. Gu scored a 95.25 on her second run, putting her far enough ahead of the field that she did not have to do a third run to win gold. The skier has become a lightning rod among some U.S. sports fans because of her decision four years ago to compete for China, the home country of her mother (The New York Times). 

 

 

THE CLOSER

And finally …  Kudos to Morning Report Quiz winners!  

With Russia in the headlines, here’s who mastered some Putin-centric trivia: Michael Babilot, Shaun Donnelly, Tom Wingfield, John Donato, Candi Cee, Eric Sugar, Terry Plfaumer, Michel Romage, Mary Anne McEnery, Jeremy Serwer, Jonathan Berck, Ki Harvey, Tom Chabot, Nancy Idaka Sheran, Dick Baznik, Patrick Kavanagh, Lou Tisler, Randall S. Patrick, Luther Berg, “Bradley4211,” Joe Erdmann, Cliff Grulke, Robert Bradley, Len Jones, Harry Strulovici, Steve James, Daniel Bachhuber, Robert Nordmeyer, Jaina Mehta and Jack Barshay.  

They knew that the Russian president was photographed several times during recent Kremlin meetings with visiting heads of state seated at an elaborately large conference table.  

Global leaders and analysts often refer to lessons Putin learned during his early career in the KGB (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal).   

The United States has said Putin and Russia could be expelled from a global financial messaging system called SWIFT as punishment for any attack on Ukraine (CNN).  

Teens, tweens and Gen Z adults opposed to war have referred to Putin on TikTok and Instagram as “Vladdy Daddy” (Reuters).

 

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