Feds back away from claim that Capitol rioters were looking to capture and assassinate officials

The lead prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the Capitol riot backed away Friday from a suggestion in a court filing that participants in the takeover of Congress last week were seeking to take officials prisoner and potentially even execute them.

Images of intruders with zip-tie handcuffs and video of protesters chanting “Hang Mike Pence” have led many lawmakers and other observers to conclude that some in the crowd were intent on capturing — and possibly killing — prisoners.

However, acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin told reporters Friday that prosecutors don’t have concrete proof of such an effort.

“Right now, we don’t have any direct evidence of kill/capture teams,” Sherwin said.

Sherwin’s contention undercut the flat assertions made by federal prosecutors in Arizona, who described in a court filing Thursday what they called “strong evidence” that Capitol rioters intended “to capture and assassinate elected officials in the United States Government.”

The D.C. prosecutor suggested those claims were the product of miscommunication or lack of coordination in what has become a sprawling investigation seeking to question and arrest suspects who have returned to their home states after traveling to Washington for the pro-Trump protest that turned violent on Jan. 6.

“There were other prosecutors. That may be a disconnect that may be adding information that’s not directly related to what we have,” Sherwin said.

Though Sherwin disclaimed specific knowledge of the rioters’ intent, he said investigators are carefully examining potential planning for the event. The prosecutor seemed to dismiss the notion of an overarching plan, but said officials are looking into the possibility that smaller groups may have coordinated in advance of and during the assault.

“There are breadcrumbs of organization in terms of what maybe was taking place outside the Capitol went inside with perhaps some type of communication with core groups of people ingressing into the Capitol and some coordination with individuals within the Capitol,” Sherwin said. “That is a tier one, top priority for both the U.S. Attorney’s office and our law enforcement partners to see, again, whether there was this command and control and whether there were indeed organized teams that were organized to breach the Capitol and perhaps try to accomplish some type of mission inside the Capitol.”

Sherwin did not back away from other explosive elements of the Arizona filing, which described the Capitol siege as an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, and part of an “insurrection movement” that is still ongoing. The filing was submitted as part of a bid to deny bail to a QAnon conspiracy follower and self-described shaman charged in the riot, Jacob Chansley.

Sherwin said that as of Friday morning, 98 criminal cases have been filed related to the riot, most of them including felony charges. He said he expects that number to grow “exponentially” in the coming days and also to involve more serious charges against some alleged rioters — perhaps including seditious conspiracy charges.

Sherwin said he was particularly disturbed by the presence of current and retired law enforcement officers in the mob that fought with police. One Capitol Police officer died following the melee and dozens of other officers were injured.

So far, two off-duty police officers from Rocky Mount, Va., have been charged, along with a retired firefighter from Pennsylvania.

“Unfortunately, as this case goes on, we’re seeing indications that law enforcement officers, both former and current, maybe had been off duty and participating in this riot activity,” Sherwin said. “We don’t care what your profession is, who you’re who affiliated with. If you are conducting and you are engaged in criminal activity, we will charge you and you will be arrested.”

Pence congratulates Harris days before inauguration

Vice President Mike Pence called his successor, Kamala Harris, on Thursday to congratulate her ticket's win and to assist the transition, people familiar with the situation confirmed to POLITICO.

The phone call came only six days before Inauguration Day, following a fraught post-election season in which President Donald Trump and his supporters vehemently denied his loss in the 2020 election. Though Trump acknowledged his time in the White House was coming to a close following a violent insurrection by his supporters at the Capitol, the president has yet to fully admit defeat to Biden.

Pence's delayed phone call with Harris also comes in contrast to Biden's own contact with Pence in 2016, when he met with with the then-future vice president shortly after Election Day to offer his full support. Contact between the two tickets has remained limited since Election Day and Trump plans to spend the inauguration away from Washington — a major break from tradition.

Pence indicated that he will be at the ceremony, and Biden said he would welcome Pence to demonstrate a bipartisan commitment to the transfer of power.

"I'd be honored to have him there," Biden told reporters last Friday.

The New York Times first reported the call between Pence and Harris.

Interior to close National Mall to demonstrations before inauguration

The Interior Department said Friday it would close the National Mall to some demonstrations until after the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden next week in an attempt to prevent violence threatened by supporters of President Donald Trump.

Details: The National Park Service, the branch of Interior that manages the Mall and supplies Park Police, will allow activities related to the inauguration and permitted First Amendment demonstrations in other areas of Washington, D.C., but core areas of the Mall will be closed until Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration.

“Areas near the U.S. Navy Memorial and John Marshall Park have been designated as demonstration areas for those holding permits,” the NPS said in a press release. “Demonstrations will be limited in number and participants will be screened prior to entry and escorted to their permitted location, in addition to other safety related requirements. Only those holding permits will be allowed within the closed area.”

Context: D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had urged Interior to close off the Mall to outside gatherings after Trump supporters, goaded by the president in a speech near the Mall, attacked the Capitol, overwhelming security and delaying the certification of Biden's election. The ransacking led to five deaths, and federal prosecutors said members of the mob had intended to kill lawmakers.

What's next: Interior's internal watchdog is reviewing the department's handling of the Trump rally and riot.

Biden’s Covid vaccine plan focuses on communities of color

President-Elect Joe Biden on Friday afternoon will unveil a plan to overhaul the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines with an eye toward making the shots more accessible to low-income communities of color and combating widespread misinformation and public distrust.

Two people close to the transition briefed on the plan say the Biden team plans to distribute vaccines to federally qualified health centers in disadvantaged neighborhoods and propose establishing mass vaccination sites in sports stadiums, community centers and churches. That would provide new outlets for communities that lack hospitals and pharmacies.

“He made a reference to a massive effort to put the vaccine where it could be readily accessible,” said one participant in a meeting Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris held Thursday with leaders of immigrant advocacy and civil rights groups.

Biden is also expected to pitch a billion-dollar national ad campaign aimed at convincing the majority of Americans to get vaccinated, according to two people with knowledge of the decision. The campaign would include a range of awareness initiatives in addition to paid media, in a bid to sell the public on the mass inoculation effort.

“We are in a race against time,” a senior Biden transition official told reporters on a call on Thursday. “We need these resources to vaccinate the vast majority of Americans to help us put Covid behind us and reopen our schools, businesses and once again be able to gather with our friends and family.”

Biden has vowed to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office, an ambitious goal that will require the incoming administration to significantly accelerate the pace of vaccinations following a rocky initial rollout.

Yet the plan depends on convincing a divided and shellshocked Congress to quickly approve tens of billions more dollars for the effort. State and federal officials are also already grappling with a litany of challenges, including broad confusion among Americans over who is eligible and where to obtain the shots — as well as pockets of vaccine hesitancy.

"There is a lack of a national communications plan — a lack of an understanding about what the plan is," Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, said of the rollout efforts under the Trump administration.

Some states on Friday complained that while the Trump administration promised to release all of the vaccine in federal reserves to speed immunizations, there was, in fact, nothing left.

“This is a deception on a national scale,” tweeted Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who said that Operation Warp Speed’s chief operations officer Gen. Gustave Perna informed her directly that reserves were dry despite claims that half of supplies were being kept for second shots in the two-dose Covid regimens.

The disclosure blindsided the Biden transition, which only found out on Friday.

“It’s another example of an unending example of surprises and disregard for actually carrying out the plans,” a person close to the transition said.

A Trump administration official said the reserve was opened to states this week, making 13 million total doses available. With government supplies now reflecting whatever is available from manufacturers, states are learning there are limits to how many people can get first shots. “I guess some states thought there was going to be a big first dose increase," the official said.

Biden had already announced a plan to release all the second-dose reserves in order to aid his 100 million shots goal.

Biden's plan for an ad campaign will need to be covered at least in part by new funding from Congress, one person with knowledge of the matter said.

States say they need much more in resources and federal guidance as they struggle to get shots into arms. The Trump administration abruptly shifted its vaccine rollout plans earlier this week, urging states to give shots to older adults and those with high-risk medical conditions and punishing states that haven’t used up vaccine allotments. That’s rankled some governors, including Arkansas Republican Asa Hutchinson, who warned shift in allocation vaccines would shortchange rural states.

One source close to Biden said that undoing some of the new guidance is “on the table.”

But Biden’s team has signaled that it won’t roll back all of the changes the Trump administration made this week, such as opening up vaccine eligibility to broader categories of people even while supplies remain scarce.

“Some of the guidance the CDC and ACIP released — while very well-intentioned in terms of trying to prevent disease and death and do so equitably — have been very hard to operationalize on the ground,” said Celine Gounder, a member of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board and an epidemiologist at New York University. “We essentially need to make things simpler.”

Some public health leaders have voiced fears that allowing all seniors access to the vaccine now could exacerbate the racial disparities already seen in the rollout and leave lower-income people and essential workers behind.

But Gounder and others involved said the team is looking at other ways besides controlling the vaccine prioritization categories to make sure whiter and wealthier residents don’t snap up all available appointments.

“Vaccination facilities need to be located in communities that are more vulnerable, and the providers of the vaccinations need to be from those communities,” she said. “It’s a way both of creating jobs and creating buy-in from the community in another way.”

Three people familiar with the plan also told POLITICO that Biden’s team plan does not include specific provisions to prevent people from cutting in line and getting a shot before it’s officially their turn, stressing that any attempts to crack down line-jumping could further slow down a rollout that’s already plagued by delays.

“That’s really not what our focus is right now — our focus is to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible so we can have a real public health impact,” Gounder said. “It is simply not reasonable to expect public health officials on the ground to be doing this kind of policing of people and whether they should be getting the vaccine now or not.”

“No one wants to see people jumping the lines and rich people getting it first,” added one person close to Biden. “But those problems can be resolved if you get substantial supply. Our most important task is to set up the supply chain up and down the system to move seamlessly from production to distribution to effective and equitable administration. If you do that well, many of these other issues will be taken care of.”

T.J. Ducklo, a spokesperson for the transition, said the Trump administration’s pandemic strategy that “prioritizes the well connected and those at the top, while those hardest hit can’t get the help they need” will be overhauled.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this report.

Tax filing season start delayed until Feb. 12

Tax filing season won’t start until Feb. 12 to give the IRS more time to adjust to changes Congress made late last year in the tax code and the second round of coronavirus-related stimulus payments lawmakers approved, the agency said Friday.

It kept the traditional April 15 filing deadline, which was pushed back to July 15 last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Filing usually starts in January, and the delay "allows the IRS time to do additional programming and testing of IRS systems following the Dec. 27 tax law changes that provided a second round of Economic Impact Payments and other benefits," the agency said in a statement.

But it also means some taxpayers could have to wait longer than usual for their refunds.

Urging electronic filing: The IRS said it anticipates 9 out of 10 taxpayers will get their refunds within 21 days of when they file — if they file electronically, have direct deposit of their payments and there are no issues with their return.

If recipients of the Earned Income and Additional Child tax credits follow the same procedure, they are likely to receive their refunds the first week of March, the agency said.

"This would be the same experience for [those] taxpayers if the filing season opened in late January."

Not unprecedented: The filing season start date has occasionally slipped into February in the past, often because Congress changed some tax laws late in the previous calendar year.

That happened in December, when Congress made some long-temporary tax provisions permanent, continued others for up to five years, and also directed the IRS to distribute economic relief payments to millions of Americans by Friday.

Pandemic challenges: In the backdrop of all that, routine IRS operations have been hamstrung throughout much of the past year due to effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including a mail backlog numbering in the millions that slowed last year’s tax return processing and refunds.

The IRS earlier Friday announced that tax preparation companies that partner with the agency in the Free File Alliance can accepts returns now. Taxpayers qualify for free use of tax software to file their returns if they make $72,000 or less.

“Given the pandemic, this is one of the nation’s most important filing seasons ever," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said. "This start date will ensure that people get their needed tax refunds quickly while also making sure they receive any remaining stimulus payments they are eligible for as quickly as possible.”

Retired general who led Katrina response tapped for immediate review of Capitol security

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré has been tapped to lead an immediate review of the security of the Capitol complex, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday.

Honoré, who led the military’s response to Hurricane Katrina, will review “the Capitol’s security infrastructure, interagency processes and procedures, and command and control,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. His investigation will follow the deadly insurrection at the Capitol Jan. 6, which has led to concerns among lawmakers about security failures and that rioters may have had inside help ahead to their assault.

“Last week, we suffered a devastating attack on the Capitol that threatened the lives of and traumatized members of Congress, staff and support workers,” Pelosi said. “To protect our democracy, we must now subject the security of the U.S. Capitol complex to rigorous scrutiny.”

Pelosi praised Honoré as a “respected leader with experience dealing with crises,” including as a former vice director for operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, focusing on military support to civil authorities.

Honoré’s investigation will focus on immediate security concerns, while “members of Congress are moving forward inside the Congress with strong oversight from their committees, and there is strong support for an outside commission to conduct an after action review,” Pelosi said.

This review's announcement also comes amid still swirling security concerns ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration next Wednesday. An inauguration rehearsal planned for Sunday was pushed back a day due to security concerns, according to two people with knowledge of the decision.

Although lawmakers generally praised the actions of Capitol Police on the day of the riot, some have taken issue after videos surfaced of a small number of Capitol Police members removing barricades for rioters to pass through and, in one instance, stopping to take a photo with a rioter.

Three top security officials in Congress — the Capitol Police chief, as well as the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms — have resigned as a result of the embarrassing and deadly security breach at the Capitol.

Democratic lawmakers have also been vocal about their concerns over the ease with which rioters moved about the sprawling Capitol complex, which can be difficult to navigate for even those who work inside the building.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) said Tuesday she witnessed colleagues giving “reconnaissance” tours through the Capitol the day before the riots. On Wednesday, 34 members of Congress requested an investigation into the matter, citing the fact that it was unusual to have outside groups in the Capitol, which has not held public tours since March due to the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said on The View that “there’s no trust” among members of the House due to these concerns.

DeSantis travels to Texas to air conservative grievances

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday used a speech to a center-right Texas think tank to air a laundry list of conservative grievances with the media and Big Tech, while framing his own accomplishments for an audience outside of his home state as positioning for the 2024 presidential race begins.

DeSantis, who last year called the idea of him running for president in 2024 "total garbage," was invited to give the keynote address to a meeting of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. During the nearly 40-minute, in-person speech, DeSantis defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic, rekindled conservative criticism of President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and blasted Amazon and other tech giants for “decapitating” Parler, a social network favored by conservatives that's been largely shut down over its refusal to address threats of violence.

The Foundation has gained a foothold in national Republican political circles in recent years. It helped bring a key legal challenge to Obamacare, and several of its top officials were hired to serve in President Donald Trump’s administration. The decision to invite DeSantis is another indication of his growing national profile. DeSantis was a backbench member of Congress before running for governor in 2018, but got a huge spotlight when Trump endorsed him in the primary. He has used the status as one of the president’s favorite governors to boost his national profile.

“What Twitter did to the president … that’s obviously a big deal, and I don’t want to minimize that,” DeSantis said. “But what really bothered me is how they decapitated this company Parler.”

Parler had become a safe space for conservatives either removed from Twitter or who left the site over what they thought was overt censorship. The site has gotten renewed attention after Trump was banned last week from Twitter, and for increased threats of violence by its users in the wake of Capitol riots that left five dead, including a cop.

Parler is arguing in federal court that Amazon Web Services violated antitrust laws by shutting it down, while Amazon says the decision came after Parler declined to remove “content encouraging violence.” In court documents, Amazon’s attorney includes Parler posts that call for “systematically assassinating liberal leaders,” another that calls on shooting “the police who protect these s---tbag senators,” and yet another that says “White people need to ignite their racial identity and rain down suffering and death like hurricane upon zionists.”

DeSantis, whose own communications staff in 2020 wrote Parler complaining about fake accounts that used the governor’s name, says shutting down Parler amounts to the discrimination of “conservative views.”

“We need to really think deeply about if we are a disfavored class based on our principles, based on having conservative views, based on being a Christian, based on whatever you can say that is not favored in Silicon Valley,” DeSantis said.

His criticism of tech companies also extends to what he says is the active downplaying of stories about Hunter Biden in the weeks leading up to the election.

Hunter Biden is under federal investigation for his tax affairs, but the investigation did not get widespread attention until after the November election, a fact that prompted Trump to blast his former Attorney General Bill Barr because he did not amplify the politically explosive investigation sooner and sparked open talk in conservative media about an intentional cover up to help Joe Biden’s bid for president.

“I was very disturbed to see credible articles about Hunter Biden actively suppressed by these Big Tech oligarchs in a way I think absolutely impacted the election,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis said passing laws to protect what he sees as conservative censorship is “probably the most important legislative issue” Florida has headed into the 2021 legislative session.

He did not give any details about how he would take on Big Tech. Florida, like many other states, spends millions annually on contracts with and is invested in publicly traded technology companies. Republican state Rep. Randy Fine last week called on DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet to divest Florida’s more than $150 billion pension plan from tech companies like Apple, Google and Amazon, a move that could run counter to the governor’s fiduciary obligations as a trustee over the state pension.

DeSantis' remarks during the Texas event were hammered by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide Democrat who is considering challenging DeSantis in 2022. In a statement, she criticized DeSantis’ focus as Florida continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and increased criticism over its vaccine distribution program.

“This governor has overseen a failed pandemic response, a botched COVID-19 vaccine rollout, a broken unemployment system that left out-of-work Floridians waiting months, children and families going hungry, and racial injustice he refuses to acknowledge — and some shut-down app is his ‘most important legislative issue we’ve got to get right?’” Fried said in a statement released through her political committee.

“That makes crystal clear what his priorities are — and it’s not Floridians,” she added.

DeSantis did defend his administration’s response to the virus in his speech, criticizing states that did “lockdowns,” and defending his stance to continue to allow limited-attendance, in-person sporting events and to advocate for continued in-person learning in Florida schools.

“You’re going to see us come out of the gates much quicker than many of these other states that have been mired in lockdowns,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also defended his approach to vaccine distribution, which included giving frontline health care workers and seniors older than 64 top priority in his Covid-19 vaccine distribution plan. The state inoculated more than 770,000 people as of Thursday, and almost half of them were among the 4.5 million elderly residents who DeSantis wants to offer the vaccine first.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states push all essential workers to the front of the vaccine line, prompting the Florida Education Association, the labor union for public school employees, to demand priority for teachers too. But DeSantis has remained firm, pointing to data from the state Department of Health showing that 80 percent of the more than 23,000 people who have died from Covid-19 were from the same age bracket he gave top priority. The CDC has since revised its guidelines, recommending those 65 and older be given access to the vaccine, as had been Florida’s policy.

“The media said ‘he does not listen to experts,’” DeSantis said. “Yeah, you’re right, when they are wrong I’m going to reject it, and we are going to do what is right.”

The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed has allotted the state 1.6 million doses of the vaccine since the first shipments arrived Dec. 14, but only 45 percent of that stock has been put to use. During a Thursday Florida House committee meeting, Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said the more than 991,000 of Florida’s unused shots are sitting in storage, awaiting orders from the federal government.

“More people are going to get sick and more people are going to die,” Moskowitz told the committee. “Trust me, it takes a toll.”

Gary Fineout and Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.

Pelosi says any lawmaker who helped insurrectionists could face criminal prosecution

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that lawmakers found to have aided any aspect of the mob violence and insurrection that overran Capitol Hill last week could face prosecution.

"If in fact it is found that members of Congress were accomplices to this insurrection, if they aided and abetted the crime, there may have to be actions taken beyond the Congress in terms of prosecutions," Pelosi said at a press conference, choking up at times as she decried the racism and bigotry some of the rioters displayed openly on Capitol grounds.

Pelosi, in particular, singled out a participant in the violence who was wearing a sweatshirt that read "Camp Auschwitz," a reference to the concentration camp at which more than 1 million Jews were systematically killed during the Holocaust. Pelosi described a congressional delegation visit to some of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps that she described as a "transformative" moment for lawmakers who were overwhelmed by the "dehumanizing of people" that occurred there.

"To see this punk with that shirt on and his anti-Semitism that he has bragged about to be part of a white supremacist raid on this capitol requires us to have an after-action review," Pelosi said.

Authorities arrested the man seen wearing the sweatshirt, 56-year-old Robert Keith Packer of Newport News, VA., and charged him with violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds as well as unlawfully entering a restricted building.

Pelosi delivered her remarks two days after the House impeached President Donald Trump for inciting the riots that left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer. Those riots included an element of armed insurrectionists that federal prosecutors now say intended to assassinate top lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence for certifying President-elect Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election.

Pelosi said that as a result, she's tapping a retired lieutenant general, Russel Honoré, to conduct a thorough review of Capitol security measures ahead of Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

She also said that the nine impeachment managers she appointed to lead the Senate trial have been meeting to prepare their arguments and strategy. She declined to say when she would formally deliver the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which would kick off a trial in the first days of Biden's administration.

Asked about the allegations by some House Democrats that Republican members of Congress may have aided the rioters, perhaps by giving them advance tours so they could scout the Capitol, Pelosi said she's interested in finding the truth.

"In order to serve here with each other, we must trust that people have respect for their oath of office, respect for this institution," she said. "We must trust each other, respecting the people who sent us here. We must also have the truth. And that will be looked into."

Democrats have not presented specific evidence that any lawmakers helped lead these tours but have asked the Capitol Police to provide logs.

Ex-McCaskill staffers launch PAC to block Hawley's electoral ambitions

Democrats are looking for revenge against Sen. Josh Hawley after he challenged the results of the presidential election last week.

A group of ex-staffers for former Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill are launching a new organization dedicated to preventing Hawley from winning any further election, whether it’s reelection to the Senate in 2024 or in a future presidential run, according to a source familiar with the effort. Hawley defeated McCaskill in 2018.

The new group is called JOSH PAC, an acronym for Just Oust Seditious Hacks. The organization formally registered with the Federal Election Commission this week and has quietly set up a website and Twitter account.

“Josh Hawley has no shame and put his own personal ambitions ahead of America. JOSH PAC will work to ensure that Hawley never wins another election,” the source said.

The PAC will launch with three former McCaskill campaign staffers on-board: Travis Mockler, Thomas Hatfield and Zoe Gallagher.

Hawley was the first senator to announce he would join House Republican challenges to the election; a dozen other senators announced plans to object to Electoral College certification after Hawley did. After rioters ransacked the Capitol last week, Hawley voted not to certify Arizona’s results and also objected to Pennsylvania’s certification. He has condemned that day’s violence.

But media outlets, former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) and donors have all been critical of Hawley’s role in challenging the election on the day a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol. The subsequent invasion of Congress led to five deaths and desecration of the building.

Hawley has largely been unapologetic, comparing his efforts to past Democratic challenges to elections. One major difference: The Democratic candidates had conceded those elections, while President Donald Trump kept fighting to overturn the election into last week.

The first-term senator defended his actions in an op-ed this week.

“Much of the media and many members of the Washington establishment want to deceive Americans into thinking those who raised concerns incited violence, simply by voicing the concern,” Hawley wrote in the Southeast Missourian on Wednesday. “But democratic debate is not mob violence. It is in fact how we avoid that violence.”

DOJ internal watchdog opens investigation into Capitol riots

The Department of Justice announced Friday it has initiated an internal review of its response to the Jan. 6 incursion on the U.S. Capitol building, as the federal government takes a hard look at its failure to prevent a deadly riot that breached the halls of Congress.

DOJ’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, said that the investigation will examine the intelligence the department had preceding the deadly riots, how it distributed that information with other agencies, and actions during the crisis.

“The DOJ OIG also will assess whether there are any weaknesses in DOJ protocols, policies, or procedures that adversely affected the ability of DOJ or its components to prepare effectively for and respond to the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6,” the department said in a release.

DOJ does not have purview over either Washington D.C.’s local police department nor the force tasked with guarding the U.S. Capitol, meaning the review is likely to center on the department’s leadership and the FBI.

New information and footage of the day's events continue to surface in the wake of the riot, further underscoring the level of chaos and violence that was present during the riot. The details have raised uncomfortable questions about how close it came to being far more tragic.

It’s one of several probes that have been launched in the wake of the deadly insurrection. Inspectors general for the Interior Department, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense have all launched examinations of their respective responses to the insurrection and vowed to coordinate with one another.

The DoD IG's office said it would begin a "multidisciplinary review" this month "to determine the DoD’s roles, responsibilities, and actions to prepare for, and respond to, the planned protest and its aftermath at the U.S. Capitol campus on January 6, 2021," according to the announcement.

Congress has also vowed to investigate the Capitol Police’s preparations in the run up to that day after members were stunned and unnerved to see the well funded department so thoroughly ill-prepared to handle the mob.

The Pentagon initially authorized 340 unarmed National Guardsmen at the request of Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser. They primarily assisted support local police around the city with things like traffic and crowd control ahead of a rally headlined by President Donald Trump. S

Once the protests turned violent and Capitol Police became overwhelmed, it initially took defense officials about 30 minutes to work through questions related to Bowser's request for additional support, make a determination to grant it and get the approval of acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said. Within hours Miller had authorized thousands more personnel across six states to help restore order in the city.

The Pentagon IG's office said it would begin a "multidisciplinary review" this month "to determine the DOD’s roles, responsibilities, and actions to prepare for, and respond to, the planned protest and its aftermath at the U.S. Capitol campus on January 6, 2021," according to the announcement.

Leadership at DOJ, and the FBI in particular, has come under scrutiny for its level of visibility in the aftermath of the riots. FBI Director Christopher Wray went more than a week before making his first public appearance on Thursday at a pre-inauguration security briefing with Vice President Mike Pence and other top security officials.

During the event, Wray said that there have been more than 100 arrests made related to the Jan. 6 takeover of the Capitol by an unruly, violent mob, and that some 200 potential suspects have been identified thus far.

Federal and local officials have been scrambling in the wake of the uprising to secure the Capitol and surrounding area ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20 and to avoid another catastrophic situation as political tensions remain high.

Large swaths of the city are being blocked off to most pedestrian traffic by police and armed members of the National Guard in recent days, public transportation is being limited in the area, and additional security barriers are being installed around the Capitol complex.

More than 20,000 members of the National Guard have been authorized to bolster the manpower throughout the city in the lead-up to Inauguration Day, and the city is going to be under heightened security measures through at least Jan. 24.

Laura Seligman contributed to this report.

Biden nominates top House Appropriations aide for OMB deputy director

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Shalanda Young, who serves as clerk and staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, to the No. 2 post at the Office of Management and Budget.

Young has vast knowledge of the federal spending process after 14 years on the committee and was the right hand to retired Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) as she engaged in high-stakes spending negotiations with Senate Republicans, including during the 2018 government shutdown and the coronavirus pandemic. Young has also helped Biden’s transition team with Capitol Hill outreach as he looks to secure votes for the nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief package unveiled Thursday night.

Promoted to staff director of the committee in 2017, Young was the first Black woman to serve in the post.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a statement that Biden has "chosen a legislative expert whose deep knowledge of the federal budget will be critical as we work to Build Back Better."

“While I regret that the Appropriations Committee will lose Shalanda from our staff, I know that the Biden Administration, the Congress, and the country will benefit from Shalanda’s service with the Office of Management and Budget," DeLauro said. "I look forward to working closely with her in this new and important role.”

If confirmed, Young could lead the agency alongside Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, who has been nominated to be director. As top leaders of the White House budget office, Tanden and Young would play an instrumental role in crafting Biden’s first budget proposal, in addition to shaping his regulatory and fiscal agendas.

Soon-to-be Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has pledged to confirm Biden’s economic nominees as soon as possible.

‘He has an obligation to them’: Attorney for ‘QAnon shaman’ asks Trump to pardon rioters

The lawyer for the “QAnon shaman” who was part of the deadly siege on the Capitol last week publicly petitioned President Donald Trump on Thursday to pardon his client.

In an interview on CNN, attorney Albert Watkins said his client, Jacob Chansley, “felt like he was answering the call of our president” when he stormed the nation’s seat of government last Wednesday during a riot that resulted in the deaths of at least five people.

Chansley, a 33-year-old man from Phoenix also known as Jake Angeli, was one of the most recognizable perpetrators of the Capitol siege. He carried a spear, wore a furry horned headdress and painted his face in shades of red, white and blue.

On Tuesday, Chansley became one of the first three people indicted by federal prosecutors in connection with the violence at the Capitol. He was charged with a felony violation of the Federal Anti-Riot Act, as well as obstruction of Congress and other offenses.

Watkins, Chansley’s attorney, said on Thursday that his client, “like a lot of other disenfranchised people in our country, felt very, very, very solidly in sync” with the president — suggesting Chansley was incited to storm the Capitol in Trump’s name.

“He felt like his voice was, for the first time, being heard,” Watkins said. “And what ended up happening, over the course of the lead-up to the election, over the course of the period from the election to Jan. 6 — it was a driving force by a man he hung his hat on, he hitched his wagon to. He loved Trump. Every word, he listens to him.”

Prior to the Capitol siege, the president, his family members and his political allies riled up his supporters at a rally on the White House Ellipse. When it was his turn to speak, Trump urged those in attendance to march on the Capitol amid Congress’ certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said. He also said that “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

On Thursday, Trump became the only president in American history to be impeached twice — this time, in a bipartisan vote on a single count of “incitement of insurrection.”

“We all have to understand that the words that were spoken by the president meant something, not just to my client. They meant something to a lot of people,” Watkins said in his interview.

“They listened to those words. And those words meant something to them. And they had a right to rely on the words of their president that was strewed forth worldwide,” he said. “And they did. And now they’re turning around [and] they’re getting arrested, as well many should be.”

Nevertheless, Trump “needs to stand up and own these people,” Watkins argued. “He has an obligation to them. He has an obligation to our nation. It’s not going to happen.”

Pressed by host Chris Cuomo on what exactly he would like Trump to do, Watkins replied: “Oh, give a pardon.”

As an attorney for Chansley, “my role is not to judge somebody. My role is to be an advocate,” Watkins said. “If there’s one iota of a chance that the guy who’s the president of our country — who invited everybody down Pennsylvania [Avenue] — will give my client a pardon, you know what? I’m going to do it.”

Watkins acknowledged, however, that his plea was unlikely to succeed. “Am I holding my breath thinking that Donald Trump is going to be sitting around going, ‘You know what? … What’s the name of that guy with the horns? Yeah … let’s give him a pardon.’”

But “with Trump,” Watkins said, “you never know. He may say, ‘I want the guy with the horns.’ Next thing you know, maybe he’s represented by the shaman instead of Rudy Guiliani.”

Watkins went on to compare the president’s supporters who stormed the Capitol to the Jonestown cult members who committed mass suicide at their settlement in Guyana

Watkins went on to compare the president’s supporters who stormed the Capitol to the Jonestown cult members who committed mass suicide at their settlement in Guyana in 1978: “You know the only thing different here? There’s no Kool-Aid.”

‘We cannot yield’: Harris says inauguration should take place outside despite security concerns

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris argued in a new interview that it is crucial for her and President-elect Joe Biden to take their oaths of office outside on Inauguration Day, despite heightened security threats ahead of next week’s ceremony.

Asked why it was so important to continue the inaugural tradition of being sworn in on the West front of the Capitol, Harris told NPR on Thursday: “I think that we cannot yield to those who would try and make us afraid of who we are.”

Her comments came one week after supporters of President Donald Trump breached the Capitol, ransacking the nation’s seat of government in a riot that resulted in the deaths of at least five people — including a Capitol Police officer.

Trump was impeached on Thursday by the House of Representatives for a second time for inciting the insurrection, which has raised new concerns over the safety of the inauguration on Jan. 20.

A rehearsal for the ceremony scheduled to take place on Sunday has been postponed until Monday for security reasons. Biden’s transition team has also canceled an Amtrak trip from Wilmington to Washington that was planned for Monday.

The National Guard is expected to deploy more than 20,000 troops to Washington, D.C., to help secure the inauguration, and the FBI has warned about the potential for armed protests in all 50 states.

Both Biden’s inaugural committee and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser have warned Americans to stay away from the inauguration, as the Capitol complex remains heavily fortified. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that all or most of the National Mall is expected to be closed to the general public.

Nevertheless, Biden has said he is “not afraid” to be sworn in outside, even as his inaugural planning team is reassessing its security planning in the aftermath of the Capitol siege.

Following the conclusion of the inauguration festivities next week, the president-elect has signaled that he will embark on an aggressive push for a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package — which Biden formally unveiled on Thursday and Harris described as “our highest priority.”

“We intend to work across party lines to do what is necessary to get this passed,” she said in her interview.

Harris also dismissed anxieties among some Democratic lawmakers that potential Senate impeachment trial of Trump could cloud the opening days of the Biden administration and hobble its legislative agenda.

“We know how to multitask,” she said. “There’s a reason that word exists in the English language. That’s what's going to be required. We have to multitask, which means, as with anyone, we have a lot of priorities, and we need to see them through.”

Biden taps D.C. veteran David Kessler to head Warp Speed

President-elect Joe Biden will name David Kessler as the top scientist of Operation Warp Speed, the government's effort to speed the development and distribution of coronavirus vaccines and treatments, said a source close to the transition.

Kessler, who served as Food and Drug Administration commissioner under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, has also advised the Biden transition team on coronavirus response as co-chair of the president-elect's Covid-19 advisory board.

“He is basically advising [Covid-19 coordinator] Zients and the president on a daily basis on anything having to do with vaccines," said the person close to the transition.

Kessler will replace former pharmaceutical executive Moncef Slaoui, who will step down from leading Warp Speed to consult on the initiative for a month.

The D.C. veteran will take over at a crucial time as federal and state officials struggle to distribute millions of doses of the first authorized Covid-19 vaccines and fall well behind initial goals. Biden has pledged to administer 100 million doses in the first 100 days of his administration, but has already clashed with senior transition officials over concerns they could underperform.

Warp Speed, started by the Trump administration, has spent billions of dollars to secure as many as 900 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, though most of the options are still in development and may not work. Two vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, are authorized for use, but just 11 million people have received their first dose so far, according to the latest government figures. Trump had promised that 20 million people would be vaccinated in December. Now Biden has set a goal of inoculating 100 million people in 100 days.

Kessler will assume his post just as more options could come to the table. Johnson and Johnson is expected to release final safety and efficacy data for its vaccine, and file for emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, within weeks.

The New York Times first reported Kessler's appointment.

During his seven-year run as FDA commissioner in the 1990s, Kessler spearheaded aggressive steps to speed up drug reviews, quickly pull unsafe products from the market, regulate cigarettes and improve food labeling.

Kessler also has a long working relationship with Janet Woodcock, FDA's drug chief, who the Biden team will name acting commissioner for the agency.

Though he became a Democratic favorite at the time for strengthening the agency’s regulatory power, Kessler quickly lost favor with Republicans — to the point that 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole promised to oust the FDA chief if he won office.

Kessler has almost sometimes been at odds with patient advocacy groups, most notably when he criticized the sweeping, bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act passed by an overwhelming majority in 2016. The massive law, designed to modernize and speed up the FDA’s regulatory reviews, “would lower standards for the approval of many medical products and potentially place patients at unnecessary risk,” he wrote in an editorial.

In recent years, the pediatrician and lawyer has campaigned for stronger tobacco and nutrition policies and became an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s actions at the FDA. Kessler along with other former commissioners wrote that the president was undermining the agency’s credibility and that the FDA should be an independent agency to ward off political influence.

Kessler also serves on the board of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group and food policy watchdog.

Russia withdraws from Open Skies Treaty after U.S. departure

MOSCOW — Russia said Friday it will withdraw from an international treaty allowing observation flights over military facilities following the U.S. exit from the pact.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S. withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty last year “significantly upended the balance of interests of signatory states,” adding that Moscow’s proposals to keep the treaty alive after the U.S. exit have been cold-shouldered by Washington’s allies.

The treaty was intended to build trust between Russia and the West by allowing the accord’s more than three dozen signatories to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territories to collect information about military forces and activities.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Moscow is now launching the relevant procedural moves to withdraw from the pact.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared Washington’s intention to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty in May, arguing that Russian violations made it untenable for the United States to remain a party. The U.S. completed its withdrawal from the pact in November.

Russia denied breaching the treaty, which came into force in 2002. The European Union has urged the U.S. to reconsider and called on Russia to stay in the pact.

Moscow has argued that the U.S. withdrawal will erode global security by making it more difficult for governments to interpret the intentions of other nations, particularly amid Russia-West tensions after the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.

Biden to name another Obama veteran as CIA deputy director

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday will announce his plan to appoint David Cohen to be CIA deputy director, according to a transition official.

A partner at D.C.-based law firm WilmerHale, Cohen previously served as the spy agency’s deputy director from 2015 to 2017. He had been a contender to helm the nation’s premier intelligence agency in the new administration until earlier this week, when Biden announced his intent to nominate former Ambassador William Burns for the role of CIA director.

During his time at Langley, Cohen helped establish a joint task force that examined Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Before leaving the agency, he was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the CIA’s highest honor.

He also enjoyed a brief cameo as an extra on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Cohen previously served in the Treasury Department, where he helped devise sanction regimes against Iran and Moscow.

Obama alumni association: Like Burns, Cohen joins the ranks of former Obama administration officials who have been tapped to serve in senior national security roles under Biden. They also include Avril Haines, the nominee for director of national intelligence, whom Cohen succeeded as No. 2 at CIA.

Haines was originally slated to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday for her confirmation hearing, but the session was canceled late Thursday night after a panel Republican objected to holding the meeting virtually.

“Despite the unusual circumstances on Capitol Hill, the committee is working in good faith to move this nominee as fast as possible and ensure the committee's members have an opportunity to question the nominee in both open and closed settings,” panel leaders Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a joint statement.

The DNI “plays a crucial role in overseeing the 18 agencies that make up our nation’s Intelligence Community, and the committee looks forward to holding a hearing next week with Ms. Haines,” the pair added.

Other notable Obama veterans tapped by Biden include Antony Blinken as secretary of State, Lloyd Austin as secretary of Defense and Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of Homeland Security. All three are scheduled to have confirmation hearings next week.

Decrying Trump's 'pressure': Last year, Cohen, Haines and former acting CIA director and deputy director Michael Morell wrote a piece about President Donald Trump's politicization of the U.S. intelligence community, noting that a number of officials had been pushed out "due to their perceived lack of loyalty to this president and their unwillingness to act on the basis of political pressure."

The pressure "is having an impact; the intelligence community is becoming politicized,” the trio wrote. They added that “not a single intelligence community leader said a word publicly” when former U.S. Attorney Joe diGenova, a Trump ally, called the whistleblower who prompted the first impeachment proceedings against Trump a "presidential assassin, the equivalent, he said, of John Wilkes Booth.”

Senior leaders “presumably were fearful of a reaction from Trump, but their silence sent its own message to the intelligence workforce regarding their willingness to appease the president.”

Diminished Trump leaves a vacuum for 2024 hopefuls

President Donald Trump’s would-be Republican successors see an opening.

As the politically diminished president prepares to leave office following a deadly pro-Trump riot at the Capitol and an impeachment vote backed by 10 GOP House members, ambitious Republicans are taking steps to burnish their own profiles and present themselves as future leaders of the party.

While some are gradually separating themselves from the president, others are publicizing plans to bolster the party as it heads into the post-Trump era. Some are even sparring with other potential 2024 rivals in plain sight, marking a strikingly early start to public presidential maneuvering.

In the last week, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said that Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s objection to certifying the Electoral College was “dumbass.” Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton went after Hawley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for fundraising at the same moment the insurrection was happening. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo upbraided former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley for criticizing the president.

The jockeying illustrates how potential future candidates are beginning to look past Trump, who’s been banned by Twitter, has seen his approval numbers drop and faces the prospect of a Senate conviction process that would legally bar him from running again. After operating in a Trump-owned-and-operated GOP for the past four years, Republicans are calculating that the outgoing president is leaving a vacuum — and that there’s room to fill it without waiting to see if Trump mounts a 2024 comeback.

“While President Trump is likely to remain the most influential voice in the GOP for the foreseeable future, the events of the last week could provide more running room and potentially open the door to more candidates in 2024,” said Phil Cox, a former Republican Governors Association executive director.

There is little question that Trump remains a force, particularly among Republican loyalists. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel earlier in the week sent an email to around 5,000 of the organization’s biggest donors in which she condemned the Capitol siege. The message elicited between 400 and 500 responses, with the vast majority expressing criticism of the event but also insisting the party shouldn’t back down in its support of the president, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But after four years of marching in lockstep with Trump, ambitious Republicans have begun seeking out distance from him. Haley delivered a speech at the RNC last week in which she praised parts of Trump’s agenda but said that his recent actions “will be judged harshly by history.”

Cotton, who spoke at Trump’s summertime convention and ran TV ads supporting his 2020 campaign, broke with the president by refusing to support his effort to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, meanwhile, delivered an implicit rebuke of Trump on Thursday, writing in a statement and on Twitter that he would attend Biden’s inauguration because, “in America, we believe in the peaceful transition of power,” and that “once the election is over, we put country before party.”

Former Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican who retired in 2018 after an avalanche of Trump-led attacks, said that by attacking prospective candidates Trump had liberated them to begin running. No longer, Corker contended, did they owe him their loyalty. Cotton and Ducey are among those who’ve recently come under withering attack from the president.

“There are a few people who are pretty prominent that he’s significantly criticized. And I think from their perspective, they’ve got nothing to lose, by getting out there and going. I mean, nothing to lose whatsoever,” said Corker.

Republicans note that without the threat of Trump’s Twitter feed, candidates are freer to separate themselves from him without fear of reprisals. The president used the account as his primary tool of imposing discipline on the party.

Part of the willingness to break with Trump also reflects a calculation that Trump’s once iron-like grip on the party has loosened. According to a POLITICO/Morning Consult survey released Wednesday, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is 75 percent, down from 83 percent in December. The same poll found that just 40 percent of Republicans would support Trump in a 2024 primary — still in first place, but with a majority saying they’d prefer someone else.

“Trump’s ability to further influence GOP politics has been severely diminished over the last week by all measures, and we still have a week to go,” said Scott Reed, a former senior political adviser at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Now, with no clear line of succession in the party, open warfare has broken out. During an speech to conservative lawmakers last week, Pompeo implicitly pushed back on Haley’s criticism of the president, saying that “I think history will remember us very well.”

Cotton took to Fox News to flay “senators who for political advantage were giving false hope to their supporters and misleading them into thinking” the election could be overturned. Cotton also said that “these senators, as insurrectionists literally stormed the capitol, were sending out fundraising emails. That shouldn’t have happened and it’s got to stop now.”

The comments were an apparent reference to Hawley and Cruz, who sent out fundraising messages to supporters during the insurrection highlighting their efforts to object to the certification of the Electoral College.

And then there’s Sasse, another potential future presidential hopeful, who went on National Public Radio to declare that Hawley’s move was “really dumbass.”

“Some candidates have already started the process of running, and the debate has started. So this is a good and healthy beginning for the Republican Party,” said Jonathan Barnett, an Arkansas RNC committeeman.

Each of the candidates are seeking out different lanes. With their objections, Cruz and Hawley are aligning themselves with Trump. Sasse and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who’ve savaged the president over the riot, has staked out the opposite turf. Cotton, who opposed the Electoral College objection but has said he’ll vote against convicting Trump after he was impeached by the House on Wednesday, is taking a middle-ground approach.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott is trying out another avenue to set him apart from the pack, casting himself the man who will lead Republicans out of the wilderness. Scott released a direct-to-camera video this week promoting his new position as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a position in which he’ll try to reclaim the party’s majority in 2022.

But even if he’s shrunken, Trump retains far more influence in the party than any other Republican. The president is leaving the White House with the support of a political action committee that’s raised well into the nine figures, giving him a massive treasury to promote himself, support favored candidates, and back primary challenges to perceived enemies. Trump aides expect to clarify their plans to develop a post-White House political apparatus following Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

“His stature has diminished,” said former George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, “but it's anyone's guess by how much.”

Census war rages ahead of critical data release

Top Democratic lawmakers are calling for the director of the Census Bureau to resign — or be removed by President-elect Joe Biden once he takes office — as former agency heads and advocacy groups decry the Trump administration’s politicization of the decennial count.

The new push comes after a memo from the Commerce Department’s office of inspector general said that Steven Dillingham, who was appointed to lead the agency by President Donald Trump in early 2019 and confirmed by a voice vote in the Senate, was pressuring career employees to produce a technical report on the number of undocumented people in the United States, with two controversial political appointees leading the charge.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said Dillingham should resign for acting “in an overtly political manner that is unbefitting of his role.”

“He must resign,” said Chu, who is head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “If he doesn't resign, then President Biden would have to immediately replace him with a census director who can oversee the completion of the 2020 census.”

Chu said she was starting to reach out to members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses about a possible formal letter calling on Dillingham to resign.

But other lawmakers are already echoing Chu’s call for Dillingham to step aside.

“Dillingham’s failure to put country over loyalty to the president allowed these transgressions to occur, and he therefore should resign,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in a statement to POLITICO. “As President Biden begins his presidency, undoing the harm President Trump levied against the census should be at the top of the list, and I will be a ready and willing partner on those efforts.” Shaheen is the ranking member on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Commerce Department, the parent agency of the Census Bureau.

The calls for Dillingham’s resignation or ouster come at a critical time for the 2020 decennial census. While data collection was completed last fall, the bureau has yet to produce any of the data. Some Democrats and advocates are worried that the outgoing administration will move to manipulate the data for political gain, either by releasing it without proper quality-control measures before next week’s inauguration or producing other measurements that Republicans could use later in redistricting.

The Trump administration has repeatedly and increasingly sought to meddle in the decennial census throughout his tenure in office. The administration tried to add a question that would ask respondents about their citizenship, a move eventually rebuffed by the Supreme Court in July 2019. Failing that, the Trump issued a memorandum a year later that sought to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment count, which determines how many congressional districts and electoral votes each state will have for the next decade. In December, the Supreme Court punted on ruling on a challenge to the memorandum, saying it was not ripe for review.

The OIG memo said that “several whistleblowers” contacted the Office of Inspector General about the push for the report, which is separate from the president’s memorandum. “One senior Bureau employee went as far to say that this work is statistically indefensible,” the memo read. “Bureau whistleblowers believe this report is being rushed without legitimate reason and will result in an inferior Bureau product.”

NPR reported on Wednesday that the bureau halted work trying to produce the data for Trump’s memorandum, a separate effort to the one relayed in the OIG memo. In a letter from Dillingham on Wednesday afternoon, he said that following the OIG memo, he informed Bureau staff “that those involved should ‘stand down’ and discontinue their data reviews.”

The Census Bureau did not answer a series of questions — including if Dillingham would resign or if he had talked to the transition team — other than to point to his letter in response to the OIG memo. The Biden team did not comment specifically about Dillingham’s tenure.

"The Trump administration's politicization of the census was damaging to our democracy,” a Biden transition aide said. “The Biden-Harris administration will get to work immediately rectifying the actions of the previous administration and ensuring that every American counts regardless of immigration status."

“I believe that Dillingham has betrayed the mission of the Census Bureau,” Arturo Vargas, the CEO of NALEO Education Fund, said. “I think he has lost the trust and confidence of the professional staff at the Census Bureau and is no longer able to lead the agency.” Vargas, who also co-chairs the census task force for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that if Dillingham does not resign, the Biden administration should remove him.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, joined Chu and Vargas in calling for Dillingham’s “immediate resignation,” saying the director conducted the count unfairly and is “unfit to serve.”

“The Trump Administration’s failed attempts to change the Census would have harmed Hispanic families and were no more than a politically-motivated attack on immigrant communities,” Ruiz said in a statement to POLITICO. “Should he remain in the position after January 20th, President Biden should move forward in removing Dillingham and appointing someone who is committed to upholding the Constitution and giving an accurate count of all persons in the United States."

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Dillingham demonstrated he was willing to carry out a “xenophobic campaign to manipulate the Census,” despite congressional and constitutional mandates to count everyone.

“He has disqualified himself and must resign or be removed,” Connolly said in an emailed statement to POLITICO.

Dillingham’s tenure does not end until Dec. 31 of this year.

Former heads of the Census Bureau were also critical of both the Trump administration’s overseeing of the decennial count, and of Dillingham specifically, in light of the OIG memo.

“It's very disappointing that the head of a statistical agency would act in such a fashion,” John Thompson, who was the director of the Census Bureau from 2013 through 2017, said in an interview. “He's not acting like the head of a statistical agency if [the OIG memo is] true, and [the Biden administration] would probably have every right to take action about that.”

Former bureau chiefs also said the agency has been under immense political pressure to deliver apportionment data before Trump leaves office next week. Apportionment data was due by the end of 2020, but the pandemic wreaked havoc on the agency’s schedule.

“I do know that the Census Bureau officials were down in the White House often, over the last two-[to]-three week period, under intense pressure to figure out some way to give them the apportionment numbers before they have to turn over the White House,” Kenneth Prewitt, who was the head of the Census Bureau from 1998-2001, said in an interview.

The Census Bureau initially pleaded with Congress to extend deadlines for the count for 120 days. But Congress never granted the extension, and in early August of 2020, the Bureau officially announced it was reversing its request for an extension and would attempt to deliver apportionment data by the end of the year.

Experts both inside and outside the agency feared that it was a politically motivated attempt by the Trump administration to deliver apportionment data skewed to benefit Republicans.

During a court hearing for a case led by advocacy organizations and some local governments earlier this week, Department of Justice attorneys said that apportionment data would likely not be delivered until March at the earliest. The Census Bureau has been reticent to publicly give a timeline for when data could be delivered, outside of the courtroom.

There has been some residual concern that the bureau could attempt to rush out apportionment data by the end of Trump’s presidency, but most advocates said the Department of Justice’s recent statements in court adds some level of confidence to the data being delivered well after Biden takes office.

“You know, nothing this administration would do would surprise me, I don't think. But if they don't have it, they don't have it,” Thompson, the former bureau director, said. “I would hope the Justice Department would not be misleading the court.”

Biden and his team have said little about the census since the election. The president-elect issued a statement following the Supreme Court hearing on Trump’s memorandum, in which he stated his opposition to excluding specific groups of people from the count. (Historically, unauthorized immigrants are included in the count.) “Congress must give the experts at the Census the time to make sure everyone gets counted accurately,” Biden added.

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

Rick Scott's rocky start atop GOP Senate campaign arm

Sen. Rick Scott has been chair of the Senate GOP’s campaign committee for all of one week, and some Republicans are already concerned that Scott has dug the party a hole for the 2022 midterms.

Scott officially took over the National Republican Senatorial Committee after the GOP’s two losses in Georgia gave Democrats control of a 50-50 Senate. Scott faced swift backlash from Democrats and private concern among Republicans over his vote against certifying Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes last week after the deadly riot at the Capitol.

As business leaders pull back from the GOP after the insurrection, some donors and operatives in the party have concerns that Scott’s vote could be an issue for Republicans going into the 2022 Senate cycle, as they seek to win back the chamber after losing their six-year majority. Scott, a wealthy businessman and former governor who has won statewide office three times, is a well-connected and established fundraiser for the party, a major benefit to Republicans next cycle after the committee raised nearly $300 million for 2020.

But some Republicans fear that his vote, the general antipathy toward the GOP among some donors right now and the party’s disappointing losses in Georgia will combine to hamper the NRSC at the outset of the cycle, according to conversations with nearly a dozen party operatives, donors and lobbyists, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

“I think a lot of people are thinking, ‘We just lost the majority. We all put an enormous amount of personal and client money into the races, and we lost,’” said one GOP donor. “A lot of those who helped raise money are thinking, ‘Give me a breath for a minute.’ And especially in the context of what happened in the last week at the Capitol.”

“He doesn't have a donor anger problem going into this, and now he does. And those donors, despite maybe not being upset or angry or whatever it might be, they've got to be tired,” said one veteran GOP operative. “I think a lot of them are looking at this and saying, ‘The world is pretty uncertain right now. I just spent a ton of money. I'm going to wait 90 days, 180 days, and see what happens here.’”

Scott has already begun outreach to donors this week, with the Senate out of session. He is hosting a virtual meeting next Monday afternoon, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by POLITICO. The NRSC's new PAC director also sent donors an email invitation to a conference call with the senator Monday evening, according to one person who received it.

The NRSC also sent out a two-minute video featuring Scott making a pitch about the party’s path back to the majority, in which he touts his past election victories, and his investment of his own funds into his political campaigns.

“I can say this with confidence: I will never ask a potential donor to contribute more than I already have given,” Scott said in the video. “I run a tight ship. I respect our donors. There are two things I don’t do: I don’t waste money, and I don’t lose elections.”

Scott also postponed the typical NRSC Winter Retreat at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, from February until October because of Covid-19. Chris Hartline, an NRSC spokesperson and longtime Scott aide, said the decision to postpone the retreat was made in early December.

Some Republicans weren’t necessarily worried just about donors. Most of the Republicans who spoke to POLITICO argued that many of the corporations and corporate executives who suspended giving might come back into the fold at some point this cycle, and said there is more concern at the moment about the House GOP than the Senate. They also pointed out that PAC donations are a fairly small percentage of the overall money the NRSC will raise through the course of the cycle, particularly with the ever-increasing focus on small-dollar donors.

“PAC dollars are a piece, but that's not the bread-and-butter of the place. Does it hurt him with major donors? That’s where the money is,” said one GOP lobbyist. “Unless it has infected the next wrung of multi-millionaires that stroke $30,000 checks, it's not clear to me that's a problem.”

Instead, some Republicans have fretted privately that Scott’s potential 2024 presidential ambitions could run cross-wise with the effort to retake the majority. That view is what shaped some of the response to his vote against certifying Pennsylvania, even though he was not vocal before the vote like other GOP senators and did not object to other states.

“Democrats are absolutely going to use this against Republicans. You can see they're just champing at the bit to attack on this front,” said one GOP strategist who works on Senate races.

Other Republicans dismiss those concerns, pointing out that Scott already has an established donor base for future ambitions, and that a successful run at the NRSC would be the best precursor for a presidential bid, anyway.

Scott’s strategists also dismissed the complaints and frustrations as anonymous griping that did not match the reality of the start of his tenure as chair.

“The courageous anonymous sources pushing this false narrative do not believe a single word they are saying, which is why they won’t put their names on this nonsense,” Curt Anderson, a top adviser to Scott, said in a statement. “They are completely disingenuous. They know Rick Scott is the best fundraiser in the Republican Party, and he is already off to a fast start. Their aim is only to brow-beat Rick Scott for his vote, which proves that they do not know much about him. He will not be intimidated by anonymous Washington, D.C., bedwetters.”

Scott is taking over the NRSC two years into his first Senate term. His claim about not losing elections is true, though each of his victories in the nation’s largest swing state has been extremely narrow. In 2010, as a first-time candidate, he edged past the better-known state Attorney General Bill McCollum, a former congressmember, in the GOP primary before winning the general election by a single percentage point. He followed up with an even-smaller margin of victory in 2014, then ousted Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by just over 10,000 votes in the closest — and most expensive — Senate race of the 2018 cycle.

The concern so far about his tenure is by no means universal among party operatives or donors. Some strategists dismissed it as a momentary blip that will fade once President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in, the Senate officially flips to Democratic control and the cycle gets rolling. Others said time will tell if it’s indicative of deeper problems for Republicans, but that they doubted he faced any long-term issues, particularly if Scott is successful at recruiting challengers in key states, something he began prior to officially taking the helm of the committee. One Republican fundraiser, who also requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Scott’s statement explaining his vote has assuaged donors.

“While some donors have asked questions about Sen. Scott’s objection to the Pennsylvania votes, Sen. Scott did a good job of explaining his reasoning in a written statement, where he noted that the election integrity problems in Pennsylvania have been going on for sometime...” this fundraiser said. “I think Sen. Scott handled this well, and whatever issues people may have with his vote will subside once he explains his firmly-held views.”