Virginia joins 15 other states in legalizing marijuana

The Virginia Legislature approved adult-use marijuana legalization Saturday in a historic vote marking the first state in the Old South to embrace full legalization.

The House passed the measure in a 48-43 vote, and the Senate approved it in a 20-19 vote. Not a single Republican voted for the bill in either chamber.

"This, to me, is a justice bill," Del. Charniele Herring, a sponsor of the legalization bill and the Democratic majority leader, said on the floor. "While it has flaws and it is not the perfect bill ... I think this moves us a step in the right direction."

The vote came after a conference committee struck a deal on Saturday to reconcile different versions of the bill that passed in both chambers earlier this month.

The impact: Virginia is the 16th U.S. state to pass an adult-use marijuana legalization law, though sales would not start until 2024. Only two other states — Illinois and Vermont — have passed legislation to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana through the legislature.

The move puts pressure on neighboring states such as Maryland, where an adult-use legalization bill got its first hearing this month. New Jersey also recently enacted legalization, after voters overwhelmingly backed a referendum in November.

What’s next: Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has championed legalization as a racial justice issue.

Under the compromise legislation, marijuana possession would not become legal until January 2024, when regulated sales are scheduled to start. The state would start setting up a marijuana regulatory agency this July.

The background: The state decriminalized marijuana last year during a special session to address criminal justice reform. Virginia’s medical marijuana program is just getting off the ground, and lawmakers passed a bill this session that would expand the program to allow marijuana flower products.

Northam endorsed legalization in November and urged lawmakers to pass his proposal during his state of the state address. The legislation was based on two extensive studies on the issue: a report from his administration and another from the nonpartisan Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.

The bills moved quickly through the chambers during a short, 30-day session, which Northam extended with a special session of 16 days. Lawmakers tackled thorny issues such as how to prevent large corporations from taking over the marijuana market, and how to handle automatic expungements of marijuana offenses when the criminal justice system lacks the technology to do so.

Opponents of marijuana legalization pointed to public health concerns such as youth use and impaired driving, as well as tobacco giant Altria’s lobbying on the issue. Altria purchased a $1.8 billion stake in Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group in 2018.

Marijuana advocates pointed to the harms of the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana offenses in communities of color. The bill contains robust social equity provisions, including prioritizing business licenses for individuals deemed to have been disproportionately impacted by criminal enforcement, which dissuaded some otherwise supportive Republicans from voting for the bill.

“Initially, I was supportive of the approach that is encompassed in this bill,” said GOP Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment during floor debate. Norment pointed to his advocacy of the marijuana decriminalization bill that passed last year.

“I just don't accept this social equity set aside on the issuance of licenses. We don't do it for alcohol, we don't do it for other matters,” he said.

The details: The bill would allow adults over 21 to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Home cultivation would be allowed under the bill — up to two mature and two immature plants per household.

The bill sets a 21 percent excise tax on marijuana and allows municipalities to add an additional 3 percent tax on retailers on top of existing sales taxes. Marijuana tax revenues would be used to fund pre-K education, substance use disorder treatment programs and other public health initiatives. A portion of revenues would also go toward a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which would provide resources such as scholarships and workforce development for communities disproportionately impacted by drug enforcement.

Vertical integration would be allowed in limited circumstances to grandfather in medical cannabis producers and industrial hemp processors. Micro-businesses would be allowed to vertically integrate as well.

Second woman accuses Cuomo of harassment

ALBANY, N.Y. — A second former staffer has accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment.

Charlotte Bennett, who began working for the state last March, told The New York Times that the governor had repeatedly asked her intimate personal questions, which felt like “something out of a horror movie.” They included questions about her romantic life and whether Bennett, 25, “had ever been with an older man.”

Bennett said Cuomo never touched her. But, she told the Times, "I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared. And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Earlier this week, another former Cuomo staffer, Lindsey Boylan, detailed allegations of harassment from Cuomo. Among other things, Boylan said Cuomo kissed her on the lips and asked her to play strip poker during a plane ride.

Cuomo’s office announced minutes after the story appeared that it was launching an “independent review” into the matter.

Former federal Judge Barbara Jones will conduct the review, according to Cuomo counsel Beth Garvey.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is first in line of succession, issued a statement on Saturday night, saying: "Everyone deserves to have their voice heard and taken seriously. I support an independent review."

Cuomo did not explicitly deny the specific claims Bennett made.

"When she came to me and opened up about being a sexual assault survivor and how it shaped her and her ongoing efforts to create an organization that empowered her voice to help other survivors, I tried to be supportive and helpful,” Cuomo said in a statement. “Ms. Bennett's initial impression was right: I was trying to be a mentor to her. I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate. The last thing I would ever have wanted was to make her feel any of the things that are being reported.

"This situation cannot and should not be resolved in the press; I believe the best way to get to the truth is through a full and thorough outside review and I am directing all state employees to comply with that effort. I ask all New Yorkers to await the findings of the review so that they know the facts before making any judgments. I will have no further comment until the review has concluded."

FDA authorizes Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, adding a third option to the United States’ arsenal as President Joe Biden aims for broad protection by this summer.

The J&J shot is the first one-dose vaccine to hit the U.S. market and is easily shipped and stored, presenting what could be a critical alternative for vaccinating hard-to-reach or skeptical Americans. FDA on Saturday cleared the vaccine for use in people 18 and older.

J&J has 4 million shots on hand, half of which will be shipped to state health officials in the upcoming week, according to Biden officials; the rest go to pharmacies and community health centers. The pharmaceutical company has said it can provide 20 million shots by the end of March and 100 million total by the end of June.

President Joe Biden in a statement called the authorization “exciting news for all Americans” but cautioned that the country most continue to follow basic public health measures, such as masking and keeping distance — especially as new, more contagious virus variants spread.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we cannot let our guard down now or assume that victory is inevitable,” Biden said. “We must continue to remain vigilant, act fast and aggressively, and look out for one another — that is how we are going to reach that light together.”

The vaccine is 66 percent effective against broad coronavirus infection but particularly good at curbing severe illness, hospitalization and death, which J&J executives say is most important for consumers.

An expert panel advising the FDA agreed, voting unanimously late Friday to recommend the vaccine for people 18 years and older.

“We need vaccines that are effective and well-tolerated. And importantly, ones that are simple to deploy,” Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine research group, said during a J&J presentation before the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on Friday.

State and local health officials have also expressed optimism about the incoming vaccine.

“I'm already looking forward to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and I would love to have information — what temperature does it need to be stored at ... how many doses of each of each vaccine is going to be contained in these vials — so I could already start planning for it," Rais Vohra, interim health officer for Fresno County, Calif., told POLITICO earlier this month.

An advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will meet Sunday to consider and vote on recommendations on who should receive the J&J shot. That’s the final step before the vaccine can be used for the general public.

The panel may address some remaining questions about how well the vaccine works in older people with some common health problems. Limited J&J data from this group indicates the shot is just 42 percent effective among people 60 and older with common risk factors, like diabetes, heart problems and obesity.

However, FDA and the company on Friday said additional data may ultimately prove the shot is more effective in this group.

Noem slams Covid shutdowns, defends South Dakota's record at CPAC

Potential 2024 presidential hopeful Gov. Kristi Noem defended South Dakota's record on the coronavirus, railing against lockdowns in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday.

In her lengthy address, Noem argued that government, not the pandemic, “crushed” the reeling U.S. economy.

“The question of why America needs conservatives can be answered by just mentioning one single year, and that year is 2020,” Noem said. “Everybody knows that almost overnight we went from a roaring economy to a tragic, nationwide shutdown.”

Noem has fought against mask mandates and encouraged a large motorcycle rally that saw hundreds of thousands of people attend. South Dakota at times has struggled to contain the pandemic, having seen the most cases and deaths per capita among states in the country, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Noem is staking herself firmly to the staunch pro-Trump lane among potential 2024 GOP contenders, many of whom have spoken at CPAC. She is meeting with donors in March at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, a fundraiser for her reelection bid and the first fundraising event of this cycle hosted by Donald Trump Jr.

In her speech Saturday, Noem often followed the Trump playbook, laying into Anthony Fauci, a favorite target among MAGA faithful, saying his predictions about South Dakota’s fate with the virus were too dire.

“I don't know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot,” Noem said to raucous applause. She also called media coverage of her state's coronavirus response "a lie," while bashing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has come under fire for his nursing home policies.

Like many other CPAC speakers, Noem leaned heavily into culture wars, arguing there has been an “an organized, coordinated campaign to remove and eliminate all references to our nation's founding and many other parts of our history.”

“To attempt to cancel the founding generation is an attempt to cancel our own freedoms,” Noem said. “Let’s always remember America is good. Freedom is better than tyranny. We are unique, we are exceptional, and no American should ever, ever apologize for that.”

She also called for a new playbook for conservatism, saying that traditional GOP campaign issues like cutting taxes and regulation “is not good enough anymore.”

"As conservatives, we often forget that stories are much more powerful than facts and statistics," Noem said. "Our stories need to be told. It is the only way that we will inspire and motivate the American people to preserve this great country."

In a crowded pack of potential contenders, Noem polled at 1 percent in a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult survey of voters' preference for 2024.

Trudeau: 'It's great to see America re-engage' under Biden

After tense relations at times with former President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it's “great to see America re-engage” under a new administration in an interview on "Meet the Press."

“I think certainly there were things that were more challenging under the previous administration in terms of moving the dial in the right direction on the international stage. But at the same time, you know, we all have democracies that go in different directions from time to time,” Trudeau told NBC's Chuck Todd in an interview airing Sunday.

The interview comes after President Joe Biden and Trudeau held a virtual bilateral meeting Tuesday, which Trudeau stressed was "very positive."

Trudeau has come under fire in Canada from critics who charge he hasn’t done enough to protect the Keystone XL pipeline, for which Biden recently revoked a key permit. When Todd asked him if the pipeline was “dead,” Trudeau signaled Canada wanted to "move forward" on the issue.

“I think it's fairly clear that the U.S. administration has made its decision on that, and we're much more interested in ensuring that we're moving forward in ways that are good for both of our countries,” Trudeau said. “There's so much we can do together that I don't spend too much time worrying about the tension points. It'll always come up in our relationship, but we'll work through them, particularly given the alignment on so many things that we're able to bring with this new administration.”

Asked what in particular the Biden administration can help push, Trudeau said "obviously" the "first thing that comes to mind" is coronavirus, as well as climate change.

“The approach that the president is taking on Covid right now much more aligns with where Canada has been for quite a while, grounded in science, grounded in protection of people as the best way to protect the economy, and understanding that, that being there to support people is absolutely essential so that we can get through this as quickly as possible,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau and Trump famously didn’t always get along, with particular disagreements on trade issues and the former president's go-it-alone approach to international relations. Trump once called Trudeau "two-faced" after a video showed world leaders appearing to joke about the former president.

Pompeo leans into pro-Trump lane in fiery CPAC speech

Mike Pompeo leaned heavily into the pro-Trump lane in a lengthy speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday afternoon, repeatedly touting the “America First” foreign policy agenda he pursued as Secretary of State.

The potential 2024 presidential candidate tossed out plenty of red meat for the base in a wide-ranging speech that rehashed many of the Trump’s administration's accomplishments and drew some of the biggest applause thus far at CPAC.

“What’s good news today for me is when you’re a diplomat, when you’re the 70th Secretary of State, you have to stay in your lane. I don't have that. I’m not a diplomat. I’m going to let it rip,” Pompeo said before launching into attacks on China while hailing President Donald Trump's order to kill Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite paramilitary forces.

In a speech promoted as focusing on the Bill of Rights, Pompeo heavily laid into Democrats, arguing they “pretend they care about jobs in America” and ripped the Biden administration for cutting a key permit for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He slammed his predecessor as secretary of state, John Kerry, now Biden’s climate envoy, for suggesting in a January press briefing that fossil fuel workers who lost their jobs can "make ... solar panels."

“You ask the good people in the middle of Texas, Oklahoma, or Kansas, or South Dakota, or Pennsylvania, you think petroleum engineers and rig hands are going to make solar panels?" he added.

He also conflated the Trump administration’s economic and immigration records with the administration’s foreign policy.

“'America First' is right for America,” Pompeo said. “The entire world benefits when America is fearless and bold and strong.”

“[Democrats] want to defund the police while they barricade the Capitol,” Pompeo said. “This is backwards. And canceling our freedom to assemble peacefully while censoring our communications online is completely antithetical to what our founders understood about America.“

The former Kansas lawmaker is among a group of potential populist candidates jostling amid the Republican Party’s reckoning in the post-Trump era — even as the former president remains broadly popular among GOP voters.

Some of those in that lane include Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, all of whom have already spoken at CPAC. Trump is set to speak at CPAC on Sunday.

More than half of Republicans said in a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult Poll that they'd vote for the former president if the primary was being held today, with all other contenders well behind. Mike Pence led the secondary group at 12%. Pompeo drew 2%.

Grenell to discuss potential California governor run with Trump Saturday

Former acting national intelligence director Ric Grenell is slated to have dinner with former President Donald Trump Saturday evening to discuss his potential run for California governor, among other issues, according to three people familiar with the plans.

The sit-down, which is set to take place at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, comes as Grenell moves closer to launching a campaign in the possible upcoming recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Grenell strongly hinted during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday morning that he was leaning toward a bid, saying that he has “never seen a better case for a recall” than the effort to recall Newsom.

“And of course, if a public official is still failing to deliver on their promises, and if you can’t limit their term or recall them in time, there's always one other option: You can run against them yourself,” Grenell said at the tail end of his speech.

Neither Grenell nor a Trump spokesman responded to requests for comment.

Trump has yet to publicly weigh in on the recall effort, though many of his staunchest backers have made clear they support Newsom’s removal. Former Trump aide Mercedes Schlapp, the wife of CPAC head Matt Schlapp, remarked onstage Saturday morning that Grenell would “make a great governor of California.”

The 54-year-old Grenell, a Palm Springs, Calif., resident, is close to the former president and is frequently in touch with him. In addition to spending several months as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, Grenell was also ambassador to Germany in the Trump administration. Grenell campaigned aggressively for Trump’s reelection in 2020 and pushed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of fraud after the vote.

Should he run, Grenell would likely be supported by a substantial fundraising operation. He was a major draw at Trump fundraisers during the 2020 campaign, and many of the former president’s biggest contributors have called on him to enter the contest. But while Grenell’s relationship with Trump is likely to help him with Republican voters, it could be a complicating factor. The former president got just 34 percent of the vote in California in 2020, and Democrats have signaled they’re eager focus a recall campaign on Trump instead of questions about how Newsom has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

Grenell is expected to meet Southern California-based high-dollar donors next week, and he has begun to assemble what one person close to him described as an experienced fundraising team.

Recall organizers, who’ve tapped into growing disapproval of Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, say they have collected 1.8 million signatures of Californians who are in support of the recall. They must submit 1.5 million valid signatures to the California secretary of state’s office by March 17 in order to qualify the recall for the ballot. They say they are trying to gather roughly 2 million or more because elections officials are almost certain to deem some signatures invalid.

Should the recall make the ballot, California voters would be asked to vote on two questions — whether to recall Newsom, and which candidate should replace him. The last California gubernatorial recall election was in 2003, when Democrat Gray Davis was booted and replaced by actor and professional bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Grenell would join a growing list of Republican contenders. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has launched a campaign, as has wealthy businessman John Cox, who lost badly to Newsom in 2018. Former Rep. Doug Ose has also said he’s weighing a bid.

Biden urges Senate to take 'quick action' on coronavirus relief package

President Joe Biden on Saturday called for the Senate to quickly pass his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which the House approved early Saturday morning.

“I hope it will receive quick action,” Biden said. “We have no time to waste. If we act now, decisively, quickly and boldly, we can finally get ahead of this virus, we can finally get our economy moving again and the people of this country have suffered far too much for too long. We need to relieve that suffering.”

Biden’s remarks — which lasted just over a minute — came hours after the House passed the package, a bill which he has called the “American Rescue Plan.” If it passes the Senate, it would be his first major legislative victory. Biden didn’t take any questions after the short address.

Biden said he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “just a few moments” before his speech to thank her for “her extraordinary leadership.”

The Senate is set to tackle the bill next week after the Senate parliamentarian dealt Democrats a major blow Thursday, ruling a $15 minimum wage couldn’t be included in the reconciliation process, which can allow Democrats to pass the relief package with a simple majority.

The House’s bill — which passed narrowly without any GOP support — includes the minimum wage provision as of now. Senate Democrats will likely need to vote unanimously to push the relief package through, likely without the wage hike.

The bill promises $1,400 stimulus checks for scores of Americans, along with increasing unemployment payments and the Child Tax Credit, as well as more funding for vaccination efforts and assistance for businesses and state and local governments. Increased unemployment benefits are set to expire in March.

Many Republicans have argued the bill is too bloated and is full of overly partisan items.

America has already seen more than 500,000 coronavirus deaths during the pandemic.

CPAC puts a bullseye on China

Donald Trump loomed large over day one of the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Elected Republicans wanting to excite the audience littered their speeches with references to the former president. Breakout sessions and high-profile panels featured former officials plucked straight from his administration. Even a gilded Trump statue — adorned in American-flag shorts and the ex-president’s iconic red tie — was wheeled throughout the exhibition hall to the amusement of attendees.

But there was one bit of real policy that underscored just how much influence the 45th president wields over the Republican party even after leaving office.

This year’s CPAC agenda features six panels in which China is a key theme, with titles ranging from “China Subverts America” to “Corporate America Surrendering to China.” The geopolitical challenges posed by China are also likely to come up in the speeches of several 2024 hopefuls — some of whom spoke Friday — using the conference to road-test new messages.

“I will not allow any more bad trade deals that favor Communist China and hurt American workers,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott during an appearance at the conference Friday afternoon, adding that China “is jailing and murdering its own citizens … because they have spoken the truth about the Wuhan virus.”

CPAC’s focus on China is indicative of broader, and bipartisan, alarm in Washington over Beijing’s ambitions on the global stage, as well as a sign that Republicans see some Democratic vulnerability on the topic.

“CPAC is largely a reflection of the success of the Trump America First agenda. And the Middle East, however serious radical Islam remains, that represents the neocon foreign policy that had been rejected by President Trump and the MAGA movement,” said Brian Kennedy, chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger: China.

At CPAC, China is the new Islam

Last year’s conference schedule, reviewed by POLITICO, showed only one event related to the Middle East, entitled “Dealing with the threat of Iran,” marking a significant departure from years past when radical Islamic terrorism was the conference’s marquee foreign policy topic. This year, the schedule omits any mention of Iran, foreign terrorism or the Middle East. Even Russia is only mentioned once.

"China is a key part of the new conservative movement moving forward,” said Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, who chairs the ultra-conservative Republican Study Committee.

"If Republicans are going to win the White House in 2024 and win back the majority in 2022, we need to preserve a tough-on-China message, make that a key part of our platform and expose [Democrats] for being a pro-China party,” he added.

CPAC organizers have gone to great lengths to ensure China remains front-and-center in the GOP agenda with Trump no longer in office. One person familiar with the matter said there were as many as a dozen panels on China proposed by organizers and sponsors during the planning process for this year’s conference in Orlando. What made the cut ranges from a panel entitled “Big Tech is for sale and China and Russia are buying” to a discussion on corporate America’s coziness with Beijing. On Sunday, Trump will deliver a much anticipated speech in which aides say he will make the case that President Joe Biden is already “capitulating to Iran and China.”

It’s a message the ex-president frequently deployed on the 2020 campaign trail after his campaign pollsters saw its deep resonance with white working-class voters. Even when Trump escalated his trade war with China midway through his term — putting significant financial distress on the U.S. agricultural industry and farmers — many of these same voters stuck by him.

“What worked for Trump––what we consistently saw in our polling — was that he was far more willing than Biden to talk tough on China and voters liked that,” said a former Trump pollster who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “He went after their trade practices. He said they should be held accountable for causing this pandemic and he ended U.S. ties to the World Health Organization.”

Similar themes are likely to surface this weekend as a parade of rumored presidential hopefuls compete with Trump on the CPAC stage, including some who have recently met with the ex-president at his Mar-a-Lago abode or have plans to in the coming days. On Thursday, four of these potential 2024 contenders — Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Rick Scott — introduced a bill ahead of their CPAC appearances to end China’s access to 10-year multi-entry visas and instead return to the previous practice of granting one-year visas.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which is widely believed to have originated in China’s central Hubei province, is also likely to emerge as a consistent theme in CPAC-hosted panels on China.

“We’re living in a world largely shaped by China aren’t we, and if nothing else the virus,” Kennedy said. “One reason you see more emphasis on China and less on the Middle East is China is up close and personal with us. Our lives have been changed because of the virus.”

A contest over who’s tougher

While Republicans are looking to burnish their anti-China credentials, Biden and his fellow Democrats, too, are taking a hard line, though with softer rhetoric.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have jointly sponsored legislation aimed at reining in alleged Chinese abuses on everything from tech to human rights. Biden, meanwhile, is structuring his administration, including the National Security Council, to keep the China challenge at the forefront. He’s also kept the tariffs and sanctions Trump imposed on China, and, like the Trump administration, accused China of committing genocide with its treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

Nonetheless, some hawkish Republicans have already accused Biden of treating Beijing with kid gloves.

Recently, Biden faced widespread backlash in conservative circles when his critics seized on comments he made during a CNN town hall about Chinese officials and Uighur Muslims having “different norms.” Former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster likened Biden’s remarks to “bigotry masquerading as cultural sensitivity.” Others have taken their criticism of Biden’s China posture even further, with Cruz accusing the president of “embracing and getting into bed with China.”

At times, Republicans have also cited a perceived lack of toughness on China as a reason to vote against some of Biden’s nominees.

Biden’s pick to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was grilled during the Senate confirmation process over a speech she’d given to mark the anniversary of a Chinese-funded institute.

Thomas-Greenfield said she regrets giving the speech, although she defended its contents. She was confirmed earlier this week on a vote of 78-20.

Despite the misgivings many Republicans still have about leaning into Trumpism as the party works to retake the House and Senate in next year’s midterm elections, CPAC organizers seemed to relish the opportunity to use this year’s conference to solidify Trump’s grip on the GOP. The attention paid to China throughout many of the opening speeches on Friday and within the conference agenda itself is but one example of the conservative machine nudging Republicans to embrace the Trump brand — both in rhetoric and issue selection — as they fend of primary challengers and Democratic opponents on the campaign trail in the coming months.

“The American voters will side with the party that seizes the tough-on-China message, versus a pro-China or soft-on-China message,” Banks said.

Grenell strongly hints at run for California governor at CPAC

Richard Grenell, a top ally of former President Donald Trump, strongly hinted at a run for California governor in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday morning.

In his CPAC address, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence railed on California and said he has “never seen a better case for a recall” than the bid to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“And of course, if a public official is still failing to deliver on their promises, and if you can’t limit their term or recall them in time, there's always one other option: you can run against them yourself,” Grenell said to close his speech.

POLITICO has previously reported that Grenell has been prepping for a run for governor in the deep blue state, which Trump lost by more than 29 percentage points in 2020. A GOP strategist who has discussed Grenell's plans with him said he planned to announce a run after the recall effort reaches the signature threshold for the ballot.

Grenell told POLITICO that “it isn’t true” he had begun interviewing potential aides and was readying to announce a run if the effort to get the recall on the ballot succeeds, and was non-committal when asked about a potential run in a Newsmax interview.

“California used to be Reagan country. The shining example of business innovation and middle class success,” Grenell said. “But now when you think of California, you think of out of control wildfires, of rolling blackouts, of schools still closed, of shuttered businesses.”

Newsom has gone on the defensive as the bid to recall him has gained steam, holding campaign-esque events as critics lambast him for the state’s coronavirus restrictions. The Republican National Committee has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the bid.

On Saturday, Grenell got the apparent backing of Mercedes Schlapp of the American Conservative Union Foundation, who was moderating the next panel discussion.

“How wonderful was Ric Grenell? I don't know, I think he’d make a great governor of California,” said Schlapp, a former Trump aide and the wife of ACU chair Matt Schlapp.

Sasse marches to own tune as GOP implodes around him

Ben Sasse is about to be censured by the Nebraska GOP for his antagonistic stance toward Donald Trump — again. But he doesn't care.

As Sasse's fellow Republican critics of Trump fret over blowback from a base that demands loyalty to the ex-president, the senator isn't even trying to dissuade those seeking to punish him. Sasse conceded in an interview: “I assume I'm going to be censured on Saturday, but I haven't spent any time to talk anybody out of it.”

“I care about a lot of the people, but I don't really care about the censure,” he said ahead of the expected condemnation from his state’s Republican Party. “There are a lot of really good people involved in party activism. But I don't think they're at all representative of regular Nebraskans … Nebraska is a lot Trumpier than I am. But I got a lot more votes than he did.”

Sasse just won a race down-ballot from Trump and is as relaxed as one can be about his political situation. He's facing no internal pressure in the Senate for his vote to convict Trump of incitement of insurrection. A previous censure in 2016 did not rattle his views. If there's a model for how to successfully build a conservative GOP out of Trump's shadow, it might as well be him.

But Sasse can't quite be replicated. He's a bit of a loner in the Senate, both in style and substance, someone who can't comprehend how cable news hits, partisan congressional speeches and the culture wars have come to dominate politics.

That’s not to say Sasse isn't bothered by Nebraskans spending their Saturday targeting Sasse’s vote to convict Trump. In fact, he's perplexed that Republicans in his state even worked on Super Bowl Sunday to censure him.

“You want to go to some hotel, strip mall conference room and scream about a politician who tried to tell you: ‘I would oppose somebody in my own party who violated their oath?’" he marveled. "That's not healthy.”

Strong opinions came to Sasse easily during a 30-minute interview in his Capitol hideaway. Of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), he says: “That guy is not an adult.” President Joe Biden’s White House is “cowering” to the opinions of people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). Sasse sees Congress itself as little but “a bunch of yokels screaming.”

Sasse, 49, has a youthful energy, a rapid speaking pace and an everyman’s appeal. When he cracks open his mini-fridge, a hefty selection of Bud Light cans reveals itself. He has a dry sense of humor, deadpanning of his beloved Cornhuskers’ recent struggles: “Half of all presidential impeachments in U.S. history happened before Nebraska won another Big 10 game.”

He is not an especially active participant on either the Senate floor nor within the GOP’s party meetings. He devotes much of his time to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which he finds most fulfilling among his assignments. And like most younger, rising players in either party, Sasse sidesteps the question of whether he’s preparing to run for president.

“I'm sure, like every 17-year-old achiever kid, I've said stupid things in the past. But running for president has never been my objective,” he said.

Dismissing his colleagues who clamor to wear the pro-Trump mantle to further their own ambitions, he said he doesn’t pursue issues that are "sexy for the rage-industrial complex tomorrow. That stuff doesn't doesn't interest me. It actively bores me.”

Sasse perplexed some senators when he first landed in the Capitol in 2015, but today there’s growing respect for him as a wonky and earnest member who is serious about his job. When Democrats took back the Senate this year, Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) put a good word in for Sasse with Democratic leaders to make sure he didn’t lose his seat on the panel. Warner says keeping Sasse was “very important” to him.

Progressive Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said Trump’s presidency tested his friendship with Sasse. But after the Nebraskan's conviction vote, Schatz said, “history will judge that Ben Sasse is a courageous leader.”

Even the most pro-Trump senators want Sasse at the GOP table instead of in the wilderness.

“I disagree with his approach to Trump. But I want to grow the party, not divide the party,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Ben’s future is bright, if he wants it to be, in the Republican Party.”

Sasse talked to Trump during his presidency more than he let on publicly, lobbying Trump to pick Justice Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court and trying to dissuade his tariff regime. Generally, Sasse supported Trump’s nominees and legislation on the Senate floor but loathed the ex-president’s antagonistic style.

An early draft of the Nebraska GOP’s censure resolution that's set for consideration Saturday said Sasse “has persistently engaged in public acts of ridicule and calumny against President Donald J. Trump.” An Omaha-area effort to condemn Sasse fell apart this week, signaling a potential lack of enthusiasm to follow through.

Sasse sees the party's efforts to condemn him as the latest act of performative outrage in American politics. He wishes he could do more to explain to Republicans that promoting and protecting Trump is not what being a conservative means: “You can't redefine conservatism to mean conspiracy theorism.”

“I'd like to persuade more people,” Sasse said. “We should be trying to be able to explain a Madisonian view of conservatism: limited government, the First Amendment, local community is primary.”

With the former president out off office, albeit still exerting serious influence, Sasse now has that opportunity as one of the most prominent anti-Trump politicians in a party that lacks a clear leader. He said he would help Republicans take the Senate back but is looking for “candidates that want to do something more than Marjorie Taylor Greene.”

Before long, Sasse will certainly be in the presidential mix for Republicans seeking to turn the page on Trump.

“He’d be a great candidate,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is retiring next year and mentored Sasse as a senator. “I would just caution that 2024 is a lifetime away. And you don’t know where he positions himself relative to the field, if he does run.”

“He’s the kind of guy that gets deep into the weeds,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who voted to convict Trump. “He has a very important and constructive voice for the party.”

Still, Sasse is selective on when to use that voice. He avoids Capitol scrums and TV hits. But he has a lot to say.

Over the course of a 30-minute interview, he leapt from talking about his censure to the Texas energy grid's failure as “another case of culture-war screaming swallowing everything.” Asked his opinion of President Joe Biden’s stimulus package, he let loose a long condemnation of Biden’s “disastrous” spending plan on education. He recognizes how agitated the issue makes him, adding that “I didn't mean to get passionate on it.”

But Sasse can grow intense when discussing his issues. His biggest criticism of his own job is that the Senate “is not actually focused on” problems confronting the country when it comes to the future of work, confronting China and preparing for what life looks like 10 years from now.

That certainly doesn’t sound like a neat and tidy presidential platform, does it?

“I'm sincerely focused on the issues I'm focused on because I think it's the best way to steward my calling to love my neighbor in this job,” Sasse said. “So 2024 isn't really my timeline. 2030 is the timeline.”

How the Pentagon Got Inside ISIS’ Chemical Weapons Operation—and Ended It

The Kurdish fighters dug in along Highway 47 in Kesik Kupri, Iraq, on January 23, 2015, could hear the truck from far off and knew the attack was coming. The defenders crouched behind their vehicles or squatted along a low ridge, rifles trained on the narrow road. From the ridge to the earthen barrier across the highway were perhaps 500 men, skilled veterans of Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga brigades as well as teenagers and elderly volunteers from neighboring villages who had come in their civilian coats, sneakers and checkered scarves to reclaim their homes from the men of ISIS. In two hard days of combat, they had seized a strategic crossroads and now effectively controlled the main route between the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian frontier. The Islamists would do whatever they could to take it back.

The afternoon was nearly spent when the suicide vehicle appeared. The Kurds positioned along the ridge could see it clearly: a red farm truck with steel plates welded to the front for ramming and a trailer bed stacked high with metal tanks. The truck picked up speed as it approached the Kurdish line, and from the ridge the defenders unleashed a volley of rifle fire aimed at the passenger cabin. The fusillade kicked up rows of dust spouts in the nearby field, but some bullets found their mark, pinging against the cab and punching holes in some of the metal tanks. From the back of the truck came a ribbon of greenish smoke, like the contrail of a distant jet.

The dirt berm in the middle of the highway forced the driver to slow for a moment, and that was all the defenders needed. Two Kurdish fighters were waiting with a 35-pound antitank rocket, and they fired the projectile directly into the truck’s side. The vehicle disintegrated in an instant. When the smoke cleared, the truck’s twisted undercarriage lay on the asphalt 50 yards from the impact crater, and metal fragments and bits of the driver’s remains were scattered across the nearby fields.

The commanding officer, a Peshmerga colonel named Sabri, cautiously inspected the debris with a few of his aides. The men discovered that the metal tanks in the truck’s rear had blown clear of the vehicle when it exploded and landed haphazardly in the dirt. Some of the containers were leaking the same pale-green smoke the men had seen earlier. All around the leaking tanks the soil and grass bore a yellow coating, as though someone had spilled a jar of watery paint. A few men who ventured close to the damaged tanks detected a pungent odor and immediately fell ill.

Sabri could offer his men no protection other than surgical masks, which were useless, so he moved everyone back and radioed for help. Soon afterward, other Kurds arrived carrying respirators and sampling kits, the latter being used to scoop up a few grams of contaminated soil from around the leaking tanks. Weeks passed before the colonel learned precisely what had happened on that late January afternoon. ISIS had tried to break his line by means of a chemical bomb: a suicide truck loaded with 20 canisters of deadly chlorine gas.

The attack near the crossroads village of Kesik Kupri represented the first known attempt by the newly resurgent ISIS to use a chemical weapon in combat. It was a modest effort, causing no serious casualties and barely drawing notice outside northern Iraq. But its leaders had signaled their intentions to the Kurds, and to the world.

ISIS was officially in the business of using chemical weapons. And the United States, watching from afar, was just starting to think about how it should, or even could, respond.


From outside Iraq, it was hard to know what to make of reports of these apparently isolated incidents of chemical weapons. Was it really possible that the Islamic State was using poison gas on the battlefield? No army had used chemicals against troop formations since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. No militia or terrorist group had done so, ever. Even if the accounts were true, where had the chemicals come from, and how did ISIS manage to get them?

The Kurds could not say. Obtaining chlorine was no problem, as the industrial chemical could be found in Iraqi factories the terrorists now controlled. But what about sulfur mustard? Had the terrorists stumbled upon abandoned munitions from Saddam Hussein’s time? Had they managed to steal something from Syria’s stockpile of poisons?

Some answers began to emerge in the following months, as delegations from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Baghdad to investigate the reported attacks on Kurdish forces at the Iraqi government’s request. The investigators swabbed yellow residue from recovered mortar fragments and tested the greasy soil in the spots where the projectiles had landed. They interviewed Kurdish soldiers and examined the ugly scars left behind wherever the foul-smelling liquid had touched human skin. They examined one soldier whose legs were utterly covered with chemical burns, from his waist to the crisp line at mid-calf where his army boots had offered some protection.

The lab tests and interviews yielded a confirmation, and also a surprise. The oily liquid in the mortar shells was sulfur mustard, no doubt, but it differed from the kinds of military-grade blister agents the OPCW’s experts were familiar with. Its formula was relatively simple, even crude. It lacked enhancers and stabilizers that military weaponeers typically use, which meant that it tended to break down more quickly when exposed to the environment. It was neither Syrian nor Iraqi, judging from its chemical composition, yet it clearly had been made by someone with access to modern laboratory equipment, a working knowledge of toxic weapons, and a grasp of basic chemistry.

All the signs pointed in the same alarming direction. Somewhere in Iraq or Syria, ISIS was manufacturing its own chemical weapons. The terrorists had not yet mastered all the elements. But they were learning. And the U.S. government was on their tail.


Suleiman al-Afari woke up on the morning of February 8, 2016, with an unusually long to-do list, which put the 49-year-old ISIS weapons-maker in a peevish mood. As a scientist and lifelong bureaucrat, he liked keeping a routine, even in wartime, but on this morning there were errands and obligations that would keep him on the road and out of the office for half the day. His mother was ill, which meant an hour’s drive to her village to visit with her, and perhaps to try to negotiate medical care with the jihadists who now ran the local hospital. He also had to drop his wife off at work, pick up cakes and navigate a gantlet of checkpoints that clotted the highways all around Mosul, Iraq, forcing motorists to wait in lines while bearded militiamen peered suspiciously inside their vehicles. As a final chore, he had to stop at an industrial supply warehouse to load up his car with jugs of liquid soap.

For the peculiar kind of factory he ran, soap is considered essential safety equipment. His workers made sulfur mustard for the Islamic State’s artillery rockets and bombs, and in case of a spill, the lye in the soap could help neutralize the chemical toxins and lessen the number of severe burns and disfiguring scars.

In his former life, Afari never dreamed of having such a job, and he certainly never asked for it. In that fateful summer of 2014 when ISIS took over his city, he had worked as a geologist and midlevel functionary in the Mosul office of Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals.

He was a family man, gregarious and gray-haired, who had spent his entire life in Mosul and had chosen not to flee, as thousands of his neighbors did, when an Islamic State army swept through the city, defeating an Iraqi troop garrison that was at least 15 times larger.

When the men from Islamic State demanded that he help them make chemical weapons, Afari was reluctant to refuse. Thus Afari the geologist became Afari the chemical weaponeer.

On February 8, when he was out looking for soap, four helicopters descended on him.

He was still trying to make sense of it when he felt something hit the car. There was a loud bang, then a series of pops as bullets hit the side panels and hood. A searing pain shot through his left leg, and he felt the car veer sharply as one of its tires blew. Afari pulled off the road and cut the engine, and with uplifted hands he climbed out of the car and into a whirl of sand and rotor wash. A huge dog suddenly appeared from nowhere and seized him by the arm.

“I wasn’t afraid that they would kill me,” Afari said afterward of the lunging canine and its handler, an American commando in body armor who grabbed his other arm to cuff him as he lay on the ground. “I never saw myself as an important figure. Anyway, at the moment, I was busy with the dog.”

Another soldier shoved a picture—an ID photo—in Afari’s face and asked in English if he was the man in the photograph.

“That you?”

“Yes,” Afari replied.

Then a cloth bag was slipped over his head and the world went dark.


When the blindfold was removed about a half-hour later, he was surrounded by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers at an Iraqi detention camp, many miles away. It was day one in Afari’s yearslong ordeal in prison, and a breakthrough day for the U.S. and Kurdish forces that had just netted one of the most important ISIS weapons-makers ever to be captured alive. It took only a few hours for Afari to fully grasp his choices, and then the words started to flow. The Iraqis ultimately would seek the death penalty for the ISIS weaponeer, but with a stay of execution as long as he cooperated. So he cooperated.

The picture he painted over the following weeks was of a weapons program that was at once ambitious and amateurish; one that was often mismanaged and disorganized, but malevolent in its intention. The group’s propaganda machine had never uttered a word about chemical weapons, but beginning in the fall of 2014, the United States learned, ISIS had been working diligently to make them.

The interrogations took place in Iraq, inside the fortresslike headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Counterterrorism Department. Afari, sipping tea and wearing prison-issued sweat clothes and sandals, recounted in matter-of-fact detail the terrorist group’s attempts to make mustard gas, part of what he described as a broader effort to create novel weapons and delivery systems to defend the caliphate and terrorize its opponents.

Over several weeks the interrogation of Afari yielded a trove of precious details, including specific locations of chemical facilities and the names of the scientists and functionaries who ran them. Each day’s summaries were transmitted to analysts at the CIA and the Pentagon, and then back across the Atlantic to the Baghdad operations room from which Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, leader of military forces in the anti-ISIS coalition, managed the war.

MacFarland read the reports carefully. The CIA and the Defense Department were now working to disrupt the Islamic State’s weapons program, and they already had achieved a crucial success: the killing of Abu Malik, Afari’s ISIS boss. Alarmed by the engineer’s talk about gassing Western cities, the Pentagon quietly dispatched special-forces teams into Iraq to find him, and then ordered an airstrike that obliterated his Mosul office. Abu Malik was dead, but as Afari’s confessions revealed, ISIS had not given up. Newcomers, including foreign scientists, had been tapped to fulfill Abu Malik’s terrible vision. MacFarland parsed the latest intelligence in daily conference calls with other Pentagon officials who separately arrived at the same grim conclusion: Given enough time, the ISIS weaponeers would eventually succeed.

“We began to recognize that ISIS was pulling in not just fighters but people with unique skills: technical skills, scientific skills, financial skills,” said General Joseph Votel, the Pentagon’s special-operations chief at the time and a regular participant in the discussions. “That gave us pause. We all witnessed the horrific things they were doing. You had to make the presumption that if they got their hands on a chemical weapon, they would use it.”

By early 2016, under pressure from the U.S.-led military campaign, the caliphate’s soldiers were retreating everywhere, but the chemical threat appeared ever more significant. The worry among both American and Iraqi commanders was that a collapsing ISIS would try to avenge its losses by unleashing its chemical weapons, either on the battlefield or in terrorist attacks in Western cities, delivered perhaps by one of the scores of small drones the militants had gone to great effort to acquire. “They were hoping for some kind of a wonder weapon,” MacFarland said later, “one that might save the caliphate.”

MacFarland faced enormous pressure to act. In Washington, President Barack Obama’s national security advisers now were well aware of how a poison-gas weapon could transform the terror campaign that ISIS had already unleashed in European cities. Even a relatively minor attack in New York or Los Angeles would generate such an outcry that the White House would be compelled to expand the war and send another generation of U.S. ground forces into battle in Iraq and perhaps Syria. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government was equally anxious. Iraq’s frontline troops already were jittery about the possibility of chemical attacks, so much so that senior commanders worried about the effect on morale. In MacFarland’s visits with Iraqi counterparts, the subject almost always came up. The older officers had seen the effects of sarin and mustard gas during the Iran- Iraq War, and the memory was seared into their brains.

“They would talk about it, and the Iraqi press would make a big deal about it,” MacFarland said. “They all knew how terrible it can be.”

Taking out the group’s capability would not be easy. The weapons facilities described by Afari were not hidden away on military bases or in underground bunkers, as they had been in Syria. The most important ones were in cities, inside lightly protected civilian facilities in the middle of residential neighborhoods. The Islamists had hidden a sizable production center inside a wing of a civilian hospital in Hit, a city of 60,000 people. Another was on the grounds of Mosul University, in the heart of Iraq’s second most populous city. Any airstrike against sites such as these carried a risk of releasing clouds of dangerous chemicals that could drift through homes, schools and playgrounds. If civilians were killed, the U.S. military and its partners would be blamed.

But MacFarland was out of time. Waiting for Iraqi troops to recapture the sites would mean a delay of many weeks, perhaps months. ISIS would surely use the time to build more weapons, or better ones. Or it might simply move its factories somewhere else.

A strike package was carefully assembled, with special kinds of bombs selected for the unusual mission. Beginning in March, just over a month after Afari’s arrest, MacFarland’s team was ready to act.


The spring’s rolling airstrikes began without fanfare and gained little notice in U.S. newspapers. The first target was the Iraqi city of Hit, where hundreds of government troops and tribal militiamen already were waiting on the outskirts to liberate the town from its ISIS occupiers. U.S. warplanes swooped in on March 25, 2016, to attack strategic targets around the city ahead of the ground assault, and over the next five days, the Americans struck 17 sites, one of which was blandly listed by the Pentagon as an “improvised weapons facility.” On April 12, Iraqi forces fought their way into central Hit, capturing the hospital and its now-ruined chemical lab.

Next on the list was Mosul. The Islamic State’s Iraqi capital was, even in wartime, a densely populated city of more than a million people, and the terrorists had positioned their most important laboratories at Mosul University, on the east bank of the Tigris River and smack in the middle of town. Mindful of the high risk of civilian casualties, the mission’s planners selected special incendiary bombs designed to generate a small blast radius but intense heat, to vaporize weapons, supplies and any residual gases that might otherwise escape. Then they waited for conditions to be just right. The time of day, the wind’s speed and direction, the humidity level—any one of these could be the margin between a clean strike and a calamity for an innocent Iraqi family.

The strikes occurred sporadically as conditions allowed and new targets emerged, beginning in late spring and continuing through fall. The biggest strike, on September 13, involved a dozen U.S. aircraft and more than 50 bombs and missiles that tore apart a large manufacturing complex for pharmaceuticals on Mosul’s outskirts.

Then it was over. By late 2016, U.S. military commanders were confidently asserting that the Islamic State’s industrial capacity for making chemical weapons had been eliminated. On January 14, 2017, six days before the end of the Obama presidency, Iraqi troops captured Mosul University, the heart of eastern Mosul and the epicenter of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program.

The impact of the Pentagon’s bombing campaign was direct and measurable. Researchers ultimately would attribute more than 70 poison-gas attacks to ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. After the liberation of eastern Mosul, the number of incidents dropped to zero.

Yet in the assessment of MacFarland and the other generals behind the bombing campaign, there was little doubt about the threat that remained. Several key ISIS figures were known to have escaped to Syria, including a French national named Joe Asperman, one of the Europeans recruited by ISIS for his scientific expertise. The caliphate’s leaders were so protective of Asperman and his projects that they issued a statement falsely claiming that the Frenchman had been “martyred.” Now dispersed across the Middle East and perhaps beyond, Asperman and other operatives would simply be harder to find.

“They had all this capability and technical knowledge. Where did it go?” asked Votel, the former special operations commander who would soon become CENTCOM chief. “We know that some of their people were killed and others went home. But some may still be out there.”

Indeed, ISIS itself issued a rare warning that a chemical attack would be coming, at a time of its choosing. Months after Kurdish fighters overran the caliphate’s last enclaves in Syria in 2019, the group’s leaders issued an official pronouncement declaring a “new stage” in the group’s terror campaign against its enemies, especially Israelis. The message promised new tactics and weapons, and included, for the first time, an explicit call for the use of poison gas.

“O soldiers of the caliphate everywhere,” it said, “below you are the settlements and markets of the Jews. So make them a testing ground for your weapons: our chemical-bearing rockets.”

From the book RED LINE: The Unraveling of Syria and America’s Race to Destroy the Most Dangerous Arsenal in the World by Joby Warrick published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 Joby Warrick.

The GOP’s anti-stimulus rallying cry: What happened to the unspent $1 trillion?

Republicans opposed to President Joe Biden’s economic relief proposal have settled on a central line of attack: Congress shouldn’t spend more money when $1 trillion in aid allocated last year hasn't even been doled out.

It’s a criticism meant to underscore their argument that the resurgent U.S. economy doesn’t need another giant influx of cash, and certainly not the $1.9 trillion package that Biden is seeking — a view that some Democrats like former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers also embrace.

“Is it not too much to ask what the current administration plans to do with the $1 trillion in unspent taxpayer funds, especially before we toss another $2 trillion onto that pile?” said Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.). “This is a basic question that would come up during a family budget discussion, with a lot less zeroes.”

GOP lawmakers are seeking to stoke public concern over the extraordinary levels of federal support: $4 trillion in aid enacted last year, almost $2 trillion more about to be approved, and another multitrillion-dollar proposal expected in the coming months. It's a strategy that worked a decade ago, when deficit fears spawned the Tea Party movement, which eventually stalled much of President Barack Obama's agenda.

But congressional Democrats, the White House and many economic experts argue that even as money continues to get to unemployed Americans, small businesses, cities and schools, it’s clear that they and the broader economy require more.

“Just because there’s money unspent doesn’t mean there aren’t still needs,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group that set up the COVID Money Tracker to follow the aid as it goes out.

At this point, most of that unspent money — comprehensive estimates place the figure at $1 trillion — has been assigned to various programs that were designed to distribute it over an extended period of time.

Enhanced unemployment insurance benefits are sent out weekly. Paycheck Protection Program and other small business aid is supplied as employers apply for them. Enhanced federal Medicaid matching funds are provided to states on a regular basis as long as the public health emergency remains in place. And rebates and tax breaks will be doled out after Americans file their taxes.

Focusing on the money left to go out through those and other programs, then, “is mostly a red herring,” said Jason Furman, who was Obama’s chief economist.

Lawmakers could have a real discussion over substantive aspects of the plan, such as the size of the stimulus checks or who should receive them, said Furman, now a Harvard economics professor. But the unspent $1 trillion is simply a reflection of how the relief packages are designed — namely, to spend money over an extended period of time.

“Congress doesn’t legislate once a month for the bills coming up for the next month,” he said. “It is so much better to pass money three months in advance rather than three months late, especially when you’re in the middle of fighting a war.”

Congressional Republicans have made a risky but calculated bet in unifying against Biden’s relief plan, given that it is popular among both Democrats and Republicans across the country. Four in five adults said last month that another economic assistance package was necessary, the Pew Research Center found. And a Morning Consult poll this week showed three in four voters back Biden’s plan.

But zeroing in on the unspent money helps drive home the GOP’s argument that Democrats are the party that “spends money like there’s no tomorrow,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put it this week. Republicans have also framed the legislation as overly generous, a “liberal wishlist for Democrats” that addresses far more than just the coronavirus and its economic fallout — and spends too much in even those key areas.

The broader concern, too, among some critics of the plan is that even as Democratic policymakers explain where the remaining $1 trillion is going, that money is not being sufficiently taken into account as Congress debates how large the next package should be.

Goldwein, whose organization advocates for deficit reduction, said that while some further aid is still needed, he feels “this package is almost written as if December didn’t happen” — when Congress passed a $900 billion relief package and two coronavirus vaccines started becoming available.

“I think Congress should be nervous about adding another $2 trillion into the mix,” said Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Concern about the size of the package has become a flashpoint in the debate even among some Democrats, especially amid new economic projections that suggest significant growth this year.

The latest forecast from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office shows the economy returning to pre-pandemic levels this year and reaching growth levels of 4.6 percent without significant new relief measures. When factoring in an expected $1.5 trillion in fiscal relief, Goldman Sachs economists forecast a head-snapping 6.8 percent growth rate for 2021, which would be the highest since the Reagan era.

Many economists argue, however, that despite those forecasts, there is still more work to do. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell cautioned lawmakers in a pair of congressional appearances this week not to declare victory on the economy too early, warning that “the job is not done.”

“We’re far from a return to a normal state,” said Kathy Bostjancic, the chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics. “When you have such a hole, a deficit where you’ve fallen from where the economy was on track previously … you have a lot of ways to make up to get back there.”

Even taking into account unspent federal money, excess personal savings and the rollout of coronavirus vaccines, another $2 trillion in fiscal stimulus is the appropriate amount to get the U.S. economy back to full employment by the middle of next year, said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“In terms of the arithmetic,” he said, “that’s about right.”

One area of particular concern to some GOP lawmakers and other critics of the plan is in funding for state and local governments. Biden’s plan would send an additional $350 billion to states, cities and localities, adding onto $150 billion passed early last year. Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee this week published a report saying that nearly one-third of that original money remains unspent, and some states are facing a significant budget surplus — as high as $15 billion in California.

The risk in sending too much money to states that don’t need it is if governors or local officials use it as an opportunity to cut taxes, for example — and there’s no easy formula to allocate aid only for states that are hurting the most. But those closely tracking this area argue that while states are doing better than they had originally expected, they are still not doing well.

The National Association of State Budget Officers also says states on average have allocated 97 percent of their initial round of funding and spent 77 percent of it, contradicting the Ways and Means numbers. Other experts note that federal restrictions made it hard for state officials to spend the money more quickly than they have.

And more broadly, as Biden administration officials say, many economists feel the risk of doing too little to help the economy right now is far greater than the risk of spending too much, even when $1 trillion in aid is still on its way out.

“It’s like, your garden needs water, but you only have so much of a hose that can get the water out. That’s the problem here — we just can’t get the water out as fast as needed,” Zandi said. “But that doesn’t argue you need any less water.”

FBI zeroes in on video of officer who died after Capitol riot

The FBI recently obtained new video of an individual spraying what appears to be a chemical irritant at more than a dozen law enforcement officers, including a Capitol Police officer who fell ill shortly after the storming of the Capitol and died at a hospital the next day, a law enforcement official said.

The video, first reported by the New York Times, has not yet led to charges directly related to the death of the officer, Brian Sicknick. An official who asked not to be named confirmed the development to POLITICO Friday night.

While the video seems likely to aid in the identification of the suspect and may lead to charges such as assault on a police officer with a dangerous weapon, it is unclear whether the new evidence will allow prosecutors to charge someone with Sicknick’s death. That would require prosecutors to prove some causal link between the actions of rioters and the 42-year-old officer’s death.

Despite the lingering uncertainty, Sicknick’s death has become a symbol of the extreme violence of the Jan. 6 riots. House Democrats cited it repeatedly during the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump earlier this month, and President Joe Biden paid respects to Sicknick, who laid in honor at the Capitol.

More than 100 other Capitol and Washington, D.C., police officers were injured during the riots, some severely, and two reportedly died by suicide in the days following the insurrection. Four rioters also died, including one shot by an officer defending the House chamber.

For nearly two months, Capitol Police has declined to provide details of the circumstances of Sicknick’s death. Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman told lawmakers Thursday that she considered it a “line-of-duty” death but said nothing else about the circumstances.

A Capitol Police statement Friday suggested further action regarding Sicknick would have to await details on his cause of death.

“The medical examiner’s report on Officer Brian Sicknick’s death, which followed the attack on the Capitol on January 6, is not yet complete,” the agency told CNN. “We are awaiting toxicology results and continue to work with other government agencies regarding the death investigation.”

Sicknick died at 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 7, Capitol Police revealed in a statement that night, describing him as “injured while physically engaging with protesters.”

“He returned to his division office and collapsed,” the agency said at the time. “He was taken to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.”

Prosecutors and Capitol Police officials have indicated that numerous participants in the Jan. 6 riot deployed pepper spray, bear spray, mace and other chemical irritants at police. One Capitol Police Captain, Carneysha Mendoza, told a Senate committee Tuesday that she observed protesters deploy “military-grade CS” gas inside the Capitol itself.

On Friday, court officials unsealed a criminal case against a suspect, Daniel Caldwell of Texas, who claimed in a video recorded on Jan. 6 to have sprayed officers during a confrontation on the steps of the Capitol.

“According to Caldwell, once the officers sprayed him, Caldwell sprayed toward police officer [sic] and believed he sprayed around 15 officers,” according to the FBI affidavit supporting the case.

The FBI submission, dated Feb. 8, also included screenshots of publicly posted videos showing a man believed to be Caldwell spraying in the direction of Capitol officers.

Biden considers elevating Mayor Pete's spokesperson

Chris Meagher, a top spokesman for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is being seriously considered to be a White House deputy press secretary, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Meagher, who recently started as deputy director of public affairs at the Department of Transportation, would replace TJ Ducklo, who resigned in mid-February after threatening a POLITICO reporter. Meagher didn’t respond to a request for comment, and a White House spokesperson declined to comment.

Meagher was national press secretary on Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign and later worked as deputy communications director for the Democratic National Committee in the 2020 cycle. He graduated with a degree in journalism from Michigan State University and started his career as a reporter covering local news in Santa Barbara, California, earning a law degree during the same time.

Meagher got his start in politics doing press and communications work for former Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.). He has served as senior communications adviser for the Colorado and Montana state Democratic parties. He also worked for Sen. Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) Senate reelection campaign in 2018.

In addition to Meagher’s potential hire, Andrew Bates is also likely to go into the White House as another deputy press secretary, according to the two people familiar with the matter. Bates would do so once he’s done with his job working on communications for the transition, where he’s focusing on Senate confirmations of cabinet nominees. Bates declined to comment.

A well-liked native North Carolinian, Bates worked as the director of rapid response for the Biden campaign. He served in the Obama White House’s communications shop and was also press secretary for the U.S. Trade Representative before a gig as the North Carolina communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. He is also an alum of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century.

While Bates got his start working in Democratic politics during his time at North Carolina State University, he’s alone in his immediate family in working in the political sphere. He told POLITICO in a Q&A last month that he was “the only member of my immediate family who isn’t a professional classical musician. Figured I’d end this on a high note. Get it? :)”

How Trump scrambled the next decade of elections

Days after the 2020 election, House Democrats convened to address some of the party’s most surprising losses, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri Bustos name-checked one in particular: Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a freshman from South Florida.

Party data missed a huge surge to the right in her Miami-based district, where voters backed Hillary Clinton by 16 points in 2016 — and then voted for former President Donald Trump by more than 5 points in 2020, after he rebounded with Cuban Americans and other Latino groups.

“Trump’s massive overperformance with Cuban voters was simply too much for her to overcome,” Bustos said, according to a person on the conference call.

The 21-point swing toward Trump in the Miami district, which once appeared to be trending deep blue, epitomizes the chaotic, fast-changing political trends of the last four years, which also saw major metro areas from Atlanta to Orange County swing hard toward Democrats. Now, those big shifts are complicating life for both parties, as they try to figure out what those results really mean in preparation for the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

Traditionally, state legislators and political mapmakers rely heavily on recent election results for clues about how communities will vote in the future — baselines they use to gerrymander advantageous districts for their party. But the whiplash in Trump-era elections make drawing conclusions from those results more complicated this year. And both parties’ strategists know that if they make bad bets, drawing districts based on elections that were driven more by Trump’s singular personality than by trends that will persist until 2030, those mistakes could swing control of the House against them over the next decade.

“People on both sides are going to have to look at these things and try to figure out: Are there any things that we can point to that are predictive, and where do we see the party heading?” said Adam Kincaid, the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the GOP’s clearinghouse for redistricting data.

“If you think of American elections as a stock market, did we go through this kind of bubble?” Kincaid said. “And now, is the bubble burst and we're going to go through a correction for a little while? Or are we kind of in this new kind of bear market for a little bit where we don't really know where we're heading next?”

Democrats are grappling with the same questions. Since 2018, Democratic strategists have wondered whether they were “renting” or “buying” the suburban voters who fled Trump in states like New Jersey, Illinois and more, flipping the House during the last midterm. They won’t have another election to test theories and figure it out before they have to compete in new districts next year.

Some strategists fear the level of uncertainty will be much greater than when politicians were preparing new maps 10 years ago. "We’re going to have a lower level of confidence in our ability to predict outcomes based on the historical election data,” said Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm.

In South Florida, in particular, the “Trump effect is a double-edged sword”, said former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who lost to Mucarsel-Powell in 2018. “While it generated this trend where Republicans are doing better with working-class voters of all races and ethnicities, they’re also losing support among higher-income and college-educated voters in the suburbs. It does make the challenge of drawing districts more daunting."

Crafting congressional seats is already a complicated process that weighs geography, population growth, the whims of state legislators and a wealth of political data stretching back decades. In the era of Trump, there’s also a myriad of conflicting data points.

Just as in 2010, Republicans have the upper hand in redistricting, fully controlling the map-drawing process in 18 states. They will draw more districts than Democrats, and they have total control in the seat-rich states of Texas, Florida and North Carolina. But those same states are also brimming over with some of the most unpredictable demographics, including Latino voters and affluent suburban voters.

Texas offers a concrete example of rapid realignment. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama won the three rural and Latino-heavy Rio Grande Valley congressional seats by double-digit margins in 2012 and 2016. Then Joe Biden carried them by only a few points, the largest rightward shift in the state.

But the opposite is true in Texas’ massive suburbs. In 2012, Sen. Mitt Romney carried 25 of Texas’s 36 congressional districts, only one of them with less than 55 percent of the vote. By 2020, Trump won 10 seats by less than 55 percent as GOP support cratered among suburban voters who recoiled from his behavior as president. GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw, for example, represents a Houston-area district that Romney won by 27 points. In 2016, Trump carried it by a third of that margin and by 2020 he won it by just 1 point, with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Yet at the same time, Crenshaw, a second-term Republican, beat a well-funded challenger by 13 points. In an interview, he said Trump’s narrow victory margins in suburban districts did not portend much for Republican candidates for Congress. Democrats didn’t pick up any seats in Texas in 2020.

“If you’re willing to take an unemotional and unbiased look at what happened, it’s pretty obvious where the general public is,” Crenshaw said. “And that’s a good thing for Republicans — if we’re just willing to learn the lesson and stick to the agenda and be nice.”

To maximize their edge, both parties seek to draw districts that spread out their supporters into as many places as possible, creating a large number of moderately safe seats, where incumbents can win with about 55 percent of the vote or so. Until 2018, traditional GOP-drawn seats like those held in states like Texas, Michigan and Georgia. But demographic changes and Trump-fueled shifts overwhelmed them, making them some of the most competitive races in the country in 2018 and delivering the House majority to Democrats that year.

In Travis County, Texas, which includes Austin, Republicans “got through the decade by dividing it into five pieces,” connecting suburban, high-growth areas to exurban and rural communities, said Matt Angle, a Democratic consultant in the state. “And it worked, but by the end of the decade, there was so much population growth, three of them were highly competitive.”

“I expect we’ll see that happen again around Houston and Dallas,” he added.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former National Republican Congressional Committee chair, warned against Republicans pushing that formula and setting the party up for losses in an unforgiving environment.

“I've watched us get in trouble by stretching the rubber band too great,” Cole said. “If you're running into what you think might be a good election, and this could be a good election for us, don't get greedy. Don't. Because there are going to be some bad elections out there."

For Democrats, the combination of rapid population growth and a Trump-spurred realignment proved to be a winning formula. And they are hoping they don’t lose the new voters that Trump pushed to their camp.

Trump’s populist streak helped Republicans win three Minnesota districts in white, rural working-class areas and made for tighter-than-expected races for members like Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Bustos, the former DCCC chair who represents northwest Illinois. Because those trends preceded Trump, operatives from both parties expect them to continue into the next decade.

Democrats had also seen some gains in the suburbs before 2016, but Trump accelerated that shift, bringing them seats that were previously out of reach but are now held by the likes of Democratic Reps. Colin Allred in Dallas, Lizzie Fletcher in Houston and Sean Casten and Lauren Underwood outside of Chicago.

However, Democrats are wary of relying too heavily on Trump-era data, in case it paints too rosy a picture of their prospects in places like those.

"Things like education level have actually been more durable as a predictive measure of competitive seats over the course of several cycles, even than Trump himself,” said Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Instead, she said, “You think of Trump as a factor in that mix, not as like its own one thing that you're looking at. It's sort of irresponsible to put all your eggs in one basket, frankly, in terms of looking for competitive seats.”

But the fact that Republicans have openly mused about the need to redraw districts to account for the purpling of the suburbs around Atlanta and Kansas City suggests that they accept that some voters who left their party in droves won’t return.

“The Trump era in the suburbs will not be an anomaly when it’s apparent that Trump continues to cast a large shadow over the party,” said one former Republican member of congress, who represented a suburban district and was granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “That being said, I think we’re in some sort of hybrid existence, where the muscle memory of many of these districts is reflexively Republican and I think it is hard to believe that these suburban areas are now full-throated Democrats.”

Back in Florida, Mucarsel-Powell said that her district swung so quickly because Republicans “targeted communities of color with misinformation and voter suppression,” on top of a “Trump-specific focus on targeting Hispanics.”

“We have to be extremely cautious and vigilant for what Republicans are doing already to target these groups,” Mucarsel-Powell added, saying that she largely maintained her share of support among Cuban American voters from 2018 to 2020. “We need long-term investment in these communities and we can win them.”

Democrats unveil earmarks revival plan

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) revealed a long-awaited proposal on Friday to restore earmarks, including major changes aimed at building bipartisan support.

Democrats are rebranding earmarks as “Community Project Funding,“ detailing a plan to tuck cash into annual spending bills that would benefit specific projects, rather than the current practice of allowing agencies to decide where the money will ultimately flow. The overhaul is an attempt to break from the politically taboo reputation of earmarks as wasteful and secretive “pork-barrel“ spending. It could also provide an incentive for members of both parties to support the next major funding deal, since lawmakers could take credit for securing funding for their districts.

“Community Project Funding is a critical reform that will make Congress more responsive to the people,” DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “Our bipartisan reforms will produce a small number of projects with strong community support, a transparent process where no member’s family can benefit and where projects are audited to ensure money was spent as planned.”

DeLauro said the revamp includes capping the overall amount of money spent on earmarks to 1 percent of discretionary spending and allowing lawmakers to submit no more than 10 project requests.

All requests would be posted online, lawmakers and their immediate families can’t have a financial stake in the requests and funds can’t flow to for-profit recipients, DeLauro said. A federal watchdog will periodically audit a sampling of earmarks, and members must justify their requests with evidence from their communities.

The Senate is separately working out a plan to restore earmarks.

“I have always believed that members of Congress have a better understanding of their communities than Washington bureaucrats,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement. “We are in good faith negotiations with the House and my Senate colleagues to bring back Congressionally directed spending in a transparent and responsible way, and those discussions are ongoing. I believe there is bipartisan support to restore the power of the purse to Congress and I am continuing to work toward that goal.”

DeLauro’s announcement comes after House Democrats mulled a plan for overhauling earmarks last year but ultimately postponed the effort. The proposal at the time sparked concern among some of the most electorally endangered freshmen, who feared Republicans would use earmarks as fodder for brutal attack ads on the campaign trail.

The issue has so far divided House Republicans, with members of the House Freedom Caucus taking a hard line against bringing back earmarks, while other GOP lawmakers have been open to reform and gaining some spending power over the Biden administration. The fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee plans to meet next week to debate the issue.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pledged last week that the return of earmarks would be bipartisan. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said he would review Democrats’ proposal when it is released and speak with his party about it.

"Steny has talked to me. He talked to me last Congress. He talked to me this Congress,” McCarthy said at his press conference on Friday. “If he wants to propose something, I will look at it. But ... it can't be what was around here before. There's got to be accountability.“

Senate Republicans have been slightly more receptive to restoring the special spending system. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he would defer to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"I'm not against earmarks," Shelby said. "I'm against bad, frivolous earmarks."

Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.