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THE WASHINGTON POST

THE BIG IDEA: President Trump’s accusation that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower was always a red herring.

The mainstream media’s stories about the Sunday shows all led with the top Republican and top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee saying there is no evidence to support Trump’s allegations in new documents turned over by the Justice Department.

FBI director James Comey may say the same thing when he testifies before their panel today during a high-profile hearing on Russian attempts to interfere in last year’s election. That would be a big deal, though it was also pretty obvious from the moment the president first tweeted his flimsy claim 16 days ago that he had nothing to substantiate it.

The most striking moment from the Sunday shows came when Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on House Intelligence, suggested that there are indications of “collusion” between Trump campaign figures and Russian operatives. Make no mistake: Schiff, who graduated from Harvard Law School, understands exactly how freighted that word is in the legal context.

“There is circumstantial evidence of collusion,” Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There is direct evidence of deception, and that’s where we begin the investigation. There is certainly enough for us to conduct an investigation. The American people have a right to know. In order to defend ourselves, we need to know whether the circumstantial evidence of collusion and direct evidence of deception is indicative of more.”

Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team who has called reporters at the White House’s request to try watering down unflattering stories for the president, disputed Schiff’s assertion on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’ll give you a very simple answer: No,” Nunes told Chris Wallace. “There’s no evidence of collusion.”

While there remains uncertainty about the degree of meddling and the full extent of contacts Trump’s advisers had with Russians, there is consensus among Kremlinologists that Vladimir Putin preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. Among the substantive reasons the businessman was apparently attractive to Moscow: His promises to turn America inward, criticisms of the NATO alliance, support for spheres of influence, desire to cut deals and relative lack of concern about human rights. Moreover, there was a general sense that Trump would sow instability in the west, and it has been a truism for centuries that a divided Europe allows for an ascendant Russia.

In many ways, the president is now governing as he campaigned. And, in the foreign policy realm, that’s worked to Moscow’s advantage. Whether Trump is trying to fracture the western alliance for Russia’s benefit – something he strenuously denies – remains a question of existential significance for many. Regardless of the president’s intent, however, his approach has already damaged key relationships. Indeed, even if you were attempting to loosen the moorings of the post-World War II international order, it would be difficult to do so at the breakneck pace Trump has during his first two months in power.

Recall Trump’s feud with the Australian prime minister over taking refugees. Or when the president of Mexico canceled a trip to D.C. because of Trump’s insistence that our southern neighbor would pay for his border wall. Or when Trump said at a rally, “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.” And nothing had happened, except that the president had seen a segment on Fox. Trump angered the French a few weeks later when he said at CPAC that his friend “Jim” no longer visits Paris because it’s become unsafe. “Paris is no longer Paris,” the president said.

But the events of the past 72 hours take the cake, as the president dragged both Britain and Germany into his wiretapping conspiracy theory while his Treasury secretary refused to endorse a G-20 statement that articulated support for free trade.

— Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House on Friday was the definition of uncomfortable.

Standing next to the German Chancellor at a White House news conference, Trump joked that Obama had spied on both of them. “At least we have something in common, perhaps,” he said, referring to past news reports that the National Security Agency tapped Merkel’s phone in 2010. This had caused great tension with Berlin.

The German press had a field day with the awkward Oval Office photo opp. Merkel asked Trump if he wanted to shake hands, which he appeared to disregard. He also avoided eye contact with her. She stared at him perplexed. Sean Spicer told Der Spiegel that the president didn’t hear the chancellor, though her comment is quite audible on the video.

Trump is also being ridiculed in that country for saying during his press conference with Merkel that, “Germany has done very well in its trade deals with the U.S., and I give them credit for it. … (But) the U.S. has been treated unfairly and that’s going to stop.”

“In fact, the U.S. has no direct, bilateral trade deals with Germany,” CNBC noted. “As Merkel quickly pointed out, Germany’s trade with the U.S. is governed by rules negotiated by the European Union on behalf of member states.”

There was already bad blood on both sides, and the visit did little to make things better. As a candidate, Trump accused Merkel of “ruining” Germany and at one point ripped Clinton as “America’s Angela Merkel.” Germany’s foreign minister, for his part, has described Trump as “a threat” and the “front-runner of a new authoritarian and chauvinist movement.

Adding insult to injury, Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to say the media was mischaracterizing Merkel’s visit. But then he criticized Germany for not paying the U.S. for its security, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of how NATO operates.

The German Defense Ministry felt compelled to formally release a statement on Sunday refuting what it called Trump’s “inaccurate” tweet, keeping the debate alive all weekend across both continents.

A poll conducted last month by the German media outlet ARD found that just 22 percent of Germans now believe the U.S. is a partner they can trust, down from 59 percent last November. It’s hard to see how this weekend improves that figure.

From a senior editor at The Atlantic who worked in George W. Bush’s White House:

— Also on Saturday, in another sign of the Trump administration’s more combative approach to diplomacy, our Treasury secretary rejected a statement from other leading economies that warned against the perils of protectionism. “Steven Mnuchin, appearing at a gathering of economic ministers and central bankers from the 20 largest economies, rebuffed multiple entreaties from German officials to include in the meeting’s joint statement language emphasizing the importance of free trade,” Damien Paletta reports from Baden-Baden, Germany. “By rejecting language that would have said the United States is opposed to protectionism, the White House sent a clear signal that it would not accept existing trade norms and could pursue a more antagonistic approach with trading partners around the world. Such language has been considered ordinary and non-controversial in recent meetings of the Group of 20.” German leaders tried pretty hard to get Mnuchin on board by watering down the language several times but to no avail.

A European Union flag flies in front of Big Ben, as an anti-Trump protest gets underway in London. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

— Meanwhile, the special relationship with Britain continues to deteriorate.

During his briefing last Thursday, Spicer tried to defend the president’s wiretapping claims by reading aloud a report from Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge and a regular commentator for Fox News. Napolitano claimed on the air that three intelligence sources told him Obama “went outside the chain of command” and used Britain’s main surveillance agency to spy on Trump so “there’s no American fingerprints on this.”

The Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the NSA, issued a very rare statement calling Napolitano’s accusations “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous.” Privately, the livid British ambassador and national security adviser sought assurances that this allegation would never be leveled again.

But Trump refused to disavow the claim when asked about it during his news conference with Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for that on television,” Trump said. “That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox.” And Spicer denied apologizing to the British. “I don’t think we regret anything,” he said Friday. (Fox said it could not confirm the claim by its pundit, which was not vetted by anyone at the network.)

The Sun, a London tabloid which like Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch, reported this weekend that British spymasters believe the Kremlin was behind the falsehood peddled by Napolitano. “We have identified the site where the claim was first made,” an unnamed intelligence source told the paper. “The whole incident bears all the hallmarks of the Russians. It’s a shame people who should know better fell for it.”

John Schindler, a former NSA analyst and counterintelligence officer, traces the origin of Napolitano’s false claims back to someone on the RT payroll. “A bit of digging has revealed that the main ‘intelligence source’ for Napolitano’s dishonest claim was none other than Larry Johnson, a notorious figure in espionage and security circles,” Schindler writes in The New York Observer. “He has been out of the intelligence business for a generation, and he has spent subsequent decades vehemently denouncing his former employers. … Back in 2001, Johnson memorably accused Washington of inflating the ‘declining terrorist threat’ … exactly two months before 9/11… In recent months, he has towed the Putin-and-Trump line on RT, spinning conspiracy theories about the downfall of Mike Flynn…

“On March 5—the day after the president unleashed his ‘wiretapping’ tweetstorm—Johnson (on television) explicitly pointed the finger at British intelligence in this plot, repeatedly referring to GCHQ as the alleged culprit—though he laughably kept calling it ‘GHCQ.’ … Johnson subsequently spoke to The New York Times, at Napolitano’s request, admitting he was the source for the ‘bombshell’ story, asserting that the information came from unnamed (intelligence community) officials.”

Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who has written so powerfully about the Iron Curtain, reacts:

The former U.S. ambassador to Moscow under Obama:

— There are fresh data points this morning that Trump’s obstinacy is hurting America’s image abroad:

Britain’s most recent ambassador to the U.S. unloads on Trump in today’s Guardian, warning that the president’s refusal to admit when he’s wrong is tangibly undermining global security. “This is a dangerous game,” said Sir Peter Westmacott, who was in Washington from 2012 to 2016. “The intelligence relationship between Britain and America is unique and precious. It is critical to our shared efforts to counter terrorism.” Westmacott added that “gratuitously damaging it by peddling falsehoods and then doing nothing to set the record straight would be a gift to our enemies they could only dream of.” He adds that “anyone with any knowledge of the intelligence world knew the suggestion was absurd”: “First, the president of the United States does not have the power to order the tapping of anyone’s phone. Second, the idea of the British foreign secretary signing a warrant authorising such an intrusion into domestic US politics was unthinkable.”

Stephen Hawking, the legendary British physicist, said on “Good Morning Britain” just a few hours ago that he no longer feels welcome in the U.S. with Trump as president. He said that America is not just swinging to the right but toward a “more authoritarian approach.” Hawking, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama, added, “I would like to visit again and to talk to other scientists, but I fear that I may not be welcome.”

With the exception of the president and his press secretary, the U.S. government continues to be in damage control mode. The deputy director of the National Security Agency gave an interview to the BBC to call the allegations “arrant nonsense” that are based on “a complete lack of understanding in how the relationship works.” “Of course they wouldn’t do it,” Richard Ledgett told the state television network Saturday, giving cover to his British counterparts. “It would be epically stupid.”

Speaker Paul Ryan administers the House oath of office to Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) in January. (Zach Gibson/AP)

— Republican Rep. Will Hurd (Texas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is calling on Trump to apologize to the British. He spent a decade as a clandestine agent for the CIA, and he warned that the president’s refusal to back away from the wiretapping claims is undercutting the rest of his agenda. “To quote my 85-year-old father … it never hurts to say you’re sorry,” the congressman said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think it helps with our allies. We’ve got to make sure that we’re all working together. We live in a very dangerous world, and we can’t do this alone.”

Hurd said, if the allegations of Russian interference are true, the operation would “go down in the history of Mother Russia as the greatest covert action campaign” ever. “It created a wedge, whether real or perceived, between the White House, the intelligence community and the American public,” he explained. “And that’s why, as we go through this review and investigation, it has to be bipartisan. It has to be thorough. And it has to be thoughtful, because we are feeding into this … narrative that the Russians are trying to create.”

— Five things to watch at today’s House Intelligence hearing, from Karoun Demirjian:

1. Can the GOP stop the bleeding? Can Democrats unearth a smoking gun?

2. Will Comey admit that there is an ongoing FBI investigation? His silence has irked members of both parties and invited charges that Comey is stonewalling Congress.

3. Could there be other surveillance involved? We still don’t know whether there were wiretaps of Trump’s affiliates outside the tower — or, in the course of other investigations, whether the intelligence community picked up on communications the president or his team had with Russia during the campaign or the transition period.

4. Will Republicans cross the White House?

5. Where do we go from here? “The pomp and circumstance surrounding this hearing is considerable — and understandable, given the investigation, the politics surrounding it and the guest list. But how much new information will we really learn? The answer may be not much at all.”

— Trump just pre-butted the hearing with a burst of early-morning tweets:

Vladimir Putin meets with the premier of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, at the Kremlin on Friday. (AFP/Getty Images)

— Three more Russia-related developments from the weekend that should be on your radar.

1. The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has signed a letter instructing Roger Stone, an informal Trump adviser, to preserve all records that could be relevant to the ongoing congressional investigations. Stone, who introduced Trump to his mentor Roy Cohn and fancies himself a “dirty trickster” in the mold of his onetime boss Richard Nixon, has retained two lawyers to navigate the morass he now finds himself in, per the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman.

2. CNN says Ukrainian prosecutors want to question Paul Manafort in connection with a corruption investigation and have made repeated requests for assistance from U.S. authorities: “Prosecutors in Kiev said they have made seven separate appeals over the past two years for help in questioning Trump’s former campaign manager, including letters to (Comey) and Justice Department officials. … Under a ‘mutual legal assistance’ treaty, the two countries have agreed to regularly assist each other in law enforcement efforts, such as gathering statements and other evidence for prosecutions. … Ukrainian officials said the US has not responded to those requests. US authorities confirmed … that the requests were received but declined further comment.”

3. Reuters reported that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida.

WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:

Uber headquarters in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)

— The president of Uber, Jeff Jones, has resigned just six months after taking the job. The tech blog Recode, which first reported the move, said his departure is “directly related” to multiple controversies that have roiled the ride-hailing company, including charges of sexual harassment. “It is now clear … that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business,” he said, per the AP. The New York Times reports that Brian McClendon, the vice president of maps and business platforms at Uber, is also out.

Hassan Aden poses for an official portrait before he retired from the Alexandria, Va., police department. He may be the victim of racial profiling.

DIVIDED AMERICA:

  1. A former Alexandria deputy police chief says he was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport and held for 90 minutes earlier this month because of his name. Hassan Aden, 52, spent 26 years with the Virginia department before leaving in 2012 to become chief of police in Greenville, N.C. Aden says he was returning from Paris, where he had been celebrating his mother’s 80th birthday. He was prohibited from using his cellphone and given little information about the reason for the holdup. (Faiz Siddiqui)
  2. Philadelphia canceled its traditional Cinco de Mayo celebration, shuttering the beloved festival amid growing fears of an ICE raid that threatened to deter many from attending. “I’m devastated to hear that ICE has had such a chilling effect that Philadelphians no longer feel comfortable engaging in this public celebration,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. (Avi Selk)
  3. Officials in Sacramento, Denver, Chicago and Miami have declared their schools safe havens, out of reach of ICE agents without special permission or a warrant. A Wisconsin school district sent information home advising parents to keep their doors shut, stay silent and refuse to sign anything if ICE agents visit their home. (Moriah Balingit and Emma Brown)
  4. A California waiter demanded to see the identification of four Latina women before he would take their order, refusing to serve them until he saw “proof of residency.” “I need to make sure you’re from here,” he told them. (Cleve R. Wootson Jr.)
  5. A Confederate battle flag was displayed prominently on a parking garage in one of the most visible places outside a Greenville, S.C., arena that is hosting second round games in the NCAA tournament. (Cindy Boren)
  6. Four people in Arizona were arrested on suspicions of anti-Semitic vandalism. The suspects – a 19-year-old men and three boys – allegedly dismantled a Jewish family’s PVC pipe menorah and turned it into a swastika while the family slept in December. (Julie Zauzmer)
  7. The arrest of a Maryland man for attempting to give a journalist a seizure by sending him a flashing image online represents a new kind of prosecution for a new kind of crime. Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald suffered a seizure in December after viewing the flashing animation when he received it via Twitter. He had written about his epilepsy and publicly described a similar attack several weeks before. Authorities allege that the attacker boasted about sending Eichenwald the image in an attempt to hurt him as revenge for critical coverage of Trump. (Max Ehrenfreund and Antonio Olivo)

A leader of India’s ruling BJP party, Yogi Adityanath (C), is offered sweets after he was elected as Chief Minister of India’s most populous state (Uttar Pradesh) during a meeting on Saturday. (Pawan Kumar/Reuters)

GET SMART FAST:​​

  1. A Hindu priest who is battling more than a dozen pending criminal charges, including one for attempted murder, and who once exhorted his followers to kill Muslims, has been tapped by India’s ruling party for the position of state leader. It is a clear signal that Prime Minister Modi is building on his party’s recent win in the state’s elections and moving to consolidate his Hindu base in a run-up to the 2019 general election. (Swati Gupta and Annie Gowen)
  2. The seven current or former Navy officers who pleaded guilty in the “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal – taking bribes such as prostitutes, cash and hedonistic parties – are still eligible for generous retirement benefits, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. The Navy has yet to decide how much the officers will receive in pensions, but their decision is likely to have repercussions for dozens of others who remain under investigation in the massive scandal. (Craig Whitlock)
  3. A wildfire burning outside Boulder, Colo., caused hundreds of people to flee this weekend. Firefigthers put more than 800 homes on notice for a possible second wave of evacuations. (Carolyn Y. Johnson)
  4. A Virginia man was arrested after driving up to a White House checkpoint Saturday night and telling a Secret Service officer that he had “a bomb in the trunk.” Officers said nothing was found, but the 29-year-old was charged on several counts, including false bomb threats and unauthorized use of a vehicle. (Martin Weil)
  5. Malaysian police are hunting for more North Korean suspects in the recent killing of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un who died after being ambushed with a banned VX nerve agent. (AP)
  6. Poison control centers receive 32 calls a day – approximately one every 45 minutes – about a child being exposed to prescription opioids, according to a newly-published study. Doctors said about 60 percent of the cases involving prescription painkillers involved children younger than five years old. (Jia Naqvi)
  7. One school system in Maryland, desperate to combat a spike in drug use, is examining the idea of creating a “recovery school” for students who have struggled and are trying to get clean. (Donna St. George)
  8. Police in rural Tennessee were caught on camera fatally shooting a man with bipolar disorder. They claimed he was trying to run them down with his vehicle, but his fiancé claims otherwise – telling authorities he had been suicidal and was simply asking for help. (Avi Selk)
  9. Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark, who made “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC championship game, disclosed that he has been diagnosed with ALS. “While I’m still trying to wrap my head around the challenge I will face with this disease over the coming years, the only thing I know is that I’m going to fight like hell and live every day to the fullest,” the 60-year-old said. (Scott Allen)

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, center, and Deputy Chief Rick Dearborn, left, listen to Trump speak during a meeting in the Roosevelt Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

PALACE INTRIGUE:

— “White House installs political aides at Cabinet agencies to be Trump’s eyes and ears,” by Lisa Rein and Juliet Eilperin: “The political appointee charged with keeping watch over [EPA] Administrator Scott Pruitt and his aides has offered unsolicited advice so often that after just four weeks on the job, Pruitt has shut him out of many staff meetings … At the Pentagon, they’re privately calling the former Marine officer and fighter pilot who’s supposed to keep his eye on [Jim Mattis] ‘the commissar.’ … It’s a reference to Soviet-era Communist Party officials who were assigned to military units to ensure their commanders remained loyal. Most members of [Trump’s] Cabinet do not yet have leadership teams in place or even nominees for top deputies. But they do have an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries’ loyalty. …The aides act as a go-between on policy matters for the agencies and the White House. Behind the scenes, though, they’re on another mission.”

  • The White House has installed at least 16 of the advisers at departments including Energy and Health and Human Services and at some smaller agencies such as NASA: “These aides report not to the secretary, but to the Office of Cabinet Affairs, which is overseen by Rick Dearborn, a White House deputy chief of staff.”
  • The arrangement is unusual: “It wasn’t used by presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. … Critics say the competing chains of command eventually will breed mistrust, chaos and inefficiency — especially as new department heads build their staffs.”
  • Many of the senior advisers lack expertise in their agency’s mission: “They include Trump campaign aides, former Republican National Committee staffers, conservative activists, lobbyists and entrepreneurs. At Homeland Security, for example, is Frank Wuco, a former security consultant whose blog Red Wire describes the terrorist threat as rooted in Islam. To explain the threat, he appears on YouTube as a fictional jihadist.”

— Nepotism watch: Trump has tapped Kellyanne Conway’s husband George to be the head of the Justice Department’s civil division. The appointment, which the Senate must confirm, would give him power to oversee the government’s lawsuits on a wide variety of issues, including defending Trump’s executive order on immigration. White House officials plan to formally announce the decision in the coming days. (Devlin Barrett)

— Trump’s approval rating has sunk to a new low, according to Gallup’s tracking poll: Just 37 percent of voters approve of the president’s performance, down from 45 percent a week ago.

— Meanwhile, a GenForward poll finds that 57 percent of young adults in America, including three-quarters of black voters and large majorities of Latinos and Asians, see Trump as an “illegitimate” president. While 53 percent of young white voters say they consider Trump a legitimate president, 55 percent of young whites disapprove of the job he is doing in the White House.

SCOTUS WATCH:

— Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch heads to Capitol Hill this morning for the start of his four-day confirmation hearing, giving Trump his first chance to make a lasting imprint on the high court— and GOP lawmakers a fresh test to work their will now that they control all of Washington’s levers of power. Ed O’Keefe and Robert Barnes raise the curtain: “Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge from Colorado, was promoted by conservative legal activists because of his sterling credentials, a decade of right-of-center rulings and his allegiance to the same brand of constitutional interpretation employed by the late justice [Antonin Scalia]. ‘Single best thing the president’s done,’ said [Sen. Lindsey Graham], a frequent Trump foil who predicted Republican unity on the matter.

Democrats, still angry about Republican refusal to consider Obama nominee Merrick Garland after Scalia’s death 13 months ago, face a dilemma. Gorsuch “is a bit of a puzzle,” said Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re going to try to put those pieces together so that the puzzle is complete and we have an understanding of what kind of a fifth vote will be going on the court.”

What to expect today: Gorsuch will sit and listen for several hours as members of the Judiciary Committee read opening statements. He’s slated to give an opening statement of his own later in the afternoon — giving senators and the nation an early indication of how he might serve on the court. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he’ll face at least 50 minutes of questioning by each member of the panel. On Thursday, the hearings are expected to conclude with a panel of witnesses speaking for – and then against – Gorsuch.

— “For critics of the nominee — any nominee — the object is drama, even confrontation. For defenders of the nominee, the object is boredom,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg reports. “A confirmation hearing with no sparks and no controversy is a surefire path to a seat on the court. So far, Gorsuch critics have been having difficulty getting traction … But there has been plenty going on behind the scenes[:] Gorsuch has met privately with 72 senators, and for the past week has been holed up with former clerks and Trump administration aides for mock hearings known as ‘murder boards,’ practicing for his public grilling. Robert Bork, who in 1987 famously went into his confirmation hearing the odds-on favorite for confirmation, refused to submit himself to these practice sessions, and paid dearly with a performance that made him sometimes sound arrogant and less than fully candid.

— Is Gorsuch a wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin tracks his shift away from being a flame-throwing ideologue in college in a front-page piece: “There is little indication Judge Gorsuch has abandoned his conservative views. … Yet Judge Gorsuch’s conciliatory posture toward those with views to his left did not begin until after his undergraduate days at Columbia University, where he struck a much different tone. At Columbia, Judge Gorsuch’s provocative political style better recalled the personality of his mother, the late Anne Gorsuch Burford, one of the most incendiary members of [Reagan’s] administration. An outspoken conservative from Colorado on a Manhattan campus where liberal views were assumed, he wrote columns for the student newspaper and founded a right-leaning publication, aiming to call out what he saw as the conformity and hypocrisy of prevailing opinion. … ‘He was deeply committed to presenting himself as a kind of heroic ideological outlier,’ said Irene Tucker, then a news editor at Columbia’s Spectator student daily, ‘so there was a theatricality to his conservatism.’”

The Journal story says, “It isn’t clear what prompted Judge Gorsuch’s transformation from ideological provocateur to evangelist of civility.” Perhaps it had something to do with his dream of getting onto the Supreme Court!

— “Democrats are approaching the hearing with multiple goals,” Carl Hulse reports in the New York Times. “First, they want to assess the nominee’s willingness and ability to stand up to Mr. Trump, given their expectation that issues such as the administration’s executive order on immigration will end up before the high court. Second, they intend to press Judge Gorsuch to provide more detailed answers on fundamental constitutional issues than they say he was willing to provide in private meetings. Expect, for instance, to hear queries such as whether a law barring Muslims from entering the United States would be constitutional.”

“Democrats have another reason to emphasize any refusal by Judge Gorsuch to give unrestrained answers,” Carl adds. “They hope to be able to persuade at least a few Republicans that legitimate reasons beyond politics exist for objecting to the nominee, possibly dissuading them from joining any leadership move to eliminate the judicial filibuster if it comes to that.”

HEALTH CARE LATEST:

— The GOP bill, moving “rapidly” toward a House vote later this week, will be changed to provide more assistance to 50-and-60-year-olds, Paul Ryan says. “We think that we should be offering even more assistance than what the bill currently does,” the Speaker said on “Fox News Sunday,” confirming that leaders are eyeing a Thursday vote on the its passage. His remarks come just one day after another House moderate, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, said in a Facebook post that could not support the health care legislation in its “current form.”

— Ted Cruz negotiated with the White House through the weekend over even more dramatic revisions to the bill. Mike DeBonis reports: “Cruz said he and two other conservative leaders — Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus — met at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in an attempt ‘to fix this bill.’ ‘I cannot vote for any bill that keeps premiums rising,’ Cruz said, echoing the concerns of other hardline lawmakers who want the legislation to undo more of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandates. ‘President Trump said this is one big, fat negotiation. Here is the central prize: If we lower premiums, and hopefully lower them a lot, that is a victory for the American people.’”

— HHS Secretary Tom Price expressed confidence the GOP plan will clear the House, even if it’s a close vote. “This is what tough legislation looks like, so it’s not unusual to have this give-and-take and this back-and-forth,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”  “It’s a fine needle that needs to be threaded, no doubt about it.”

Tom Price rallies House Republicans on Friday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

MORE SUNDAY SHOW HIGHLIGHTS:

— Price said he has not received any indication there is an ongoing federal investigation into his stock trades, telling ABC that he “knew nothing whatsoever” about an inquiry being led by fired U.S. attorney Preet Bharara. His remarks follow a ProPublica scoop on Friday that Bharara was probing Price, who traded stocks of health-related companies while working on legislation affecting the firms, when Trump decided to purge him.

— OMB Director Mick Mulvaney denied that Trump’s budget calls for gutting the Meals on Wheels program, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the funding source the administration seeks to eliminate accounts for just 3 percent of its overall funding. “Some of the stories are just either grossly wrong or nearly grossly wrong, all the stories about how we cut Meals on Wheels,” he said. “Meals on Wheels is not a federal program, nor do its local groups directly receive federal funding,” Philip Rucker notes. “Rather, the groups run on a mix of local, state and federal money, as well as private donations and the work contributions of volunteers, which vary depending on the funding structure of each affiliate.”

Mulvaney dodged questions on whether he supports Trump’s wiretapping claims, telling host Chuck Todd he’s the “numbers guy” in the administration: “I’m sitting here doing the budget, so I’m really not involved in the wiretapping issue,” he said. When asked if eroding credibility on the issue makes his job harder in Congress, he said no: “No, no. Listen, those of us who see and work with the president every day believe him, trust him, have no difficulties like the folks in the press do.”

THE WORLD ADJUSTS:

— U.S. allies in Asia are nervous after Rex Tillerson’s weekend visit to China. The new secretary of state raised eyebrows by echoing some of the regime’s favorite talking points. “Some critics say Tillerson has bent too far, handing Beijing what Chinese media reports are calling a ‘diplomatic victory,’” Simon Denyer reports. “After meeting China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday, Tillerson voiced Chinese catchphrases about the relationship, including the avoidance of conflict and confrontation and the need to build ‘mutual respect’ and strive for ‘win-win’ cooperation. The phrase ‘mutual respect’ is key: In Beijing, that is taken to mean each side should respect the other’s ‘core interests.’ In other words: The United States should stay away from issues such as Taiwan, Tibet or Hong Kong — and in principle almost anything China’s Communist Party deems a vital national security concern. Increasingly, that also appears to include China’s territorial claims in the contested waters of the South China Sea.”

Afghan nationals prepare to cross the Torkham border post in Pakistan en route to Afghanistan. (AP/Muhammad Sajjad)

— “‘Nothing here but dust’: Unregistered war refugees returning to Afghanistan face a barren welcome,” by Pamela Constable: “The land is lush in this river-fed region of eastern Afghanistan. The highway that leads to the Pakistan border … passes fields of ripening wheat, cucumber and cauliflower. The nearby city of Jalalabad is bustling, with crowded sidewalks and traffic jams of produce trucks, auto rickshaws and tractors. But for a large, nearly invisible populace of new arrivals, the welcome has been grudging, the work scarce and the terrain as barren as the moon. They are natives of the region, but they have been away for years, living as undocumented war refugees in Pakistan. About 260,000 such returnees have arrived in the past 15 months, pushed out by Pakistani authorities and encouraged to return by the Afghan government, but lacking official status in either country. In many ways, they are misfits and intruders in their homeland — nomads allocated bits of rocky ground to pitch tents and build cinder-block huts; surplus laborers in a market crowded with men who have fled insurgent fighting nearby; half-forgotten relatives trying to squeeze back into villages where no one has room to take them in. ‘There is nothing here but dust,’ said one 55-year-old laborer and father of 10, surveying the rocky patch of land he now calls home.”

— New York Times, “Using Special Forces Against Terrorism, Trump Seeks to Avoid Big Ground Wars,” by Eric Schmitt: “From Yemen to Syria to … Central Africa, the Trump administration is relying on Special Operations forces to intensify its promised fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups as senior officials embrace an Obama-era strategy to minimize the American military’s footprint overseas. In Africa, [Trump] is expected to soon approve a Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on Special Operations airstrikes and raids in parts of Somalia to target suspected militants with the Shabab, an extremist group … Critics say that the change — in one of the few rejections of [Obama’s] guidelines for the elite forces — would bypass rules that seek to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks and commando operations. But in their two months in office, Trump officials have shown few other signs that they want to back away from Mr. Obama’s strategy to train, equip and otherwise support indigenous armies and security forces to fight their own wars instead of having to deploy large American forces to far-flung hot spots.”

Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway watch as Angela Merkel and Trump hold a joint news conference. (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

THE TRUMP-FLUENCERS — Several good profiles came out over the weekend of people who have the president’s ear:

— “How the Mercer family’s partnership with Stephen Bannon shaped the populist climate,” by Matea Gold: “The champagne was flowing as hedge fund executive Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah hosted a reception during the Cannes Film Festival last May to promote ‘Clinton Cash,’ a film by their political adviser [Bannon] and the production company they co-founded. … [The Mercers] … were still weeks from formally aligning with [Trump’s] campaign. But the festivities that balmy evening aboard the Sea Owl, the Mercers’ luxurious yacht, marked the growing influence of their financial and political partnership in shaping the 2016 campaign … The Mercers’ approach is far different from that of other big donors. While better-known players … focus on mobilizing activists and voters, the Mercers have exerted pressure on the political system by helping erect an alternative media ecosystem, whose storylines dominated the 2016 race. The wealthy New York family and the former investment banker-turned-media executive collaborated on at least five ventures between 2011 and 2016 … Through those projects … [they] quietly built a power base aimed at sowing distrust of big government and eroding the dominance of the major news media. Their alliance with Bannon provided fuel for the narrative that drove Trump’s victory: that dangerous immigrants are ruining the country and corrupt power brokers are sabotaging Washington.”

— New Yorker, “The reclusive hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump presidency,” by Jane Mayer: “The 2016 Presidential election posed a challenge for someone with [Robert] Mercer’s ideology. Multiple sources described him as animated mainly by hatred of [Clinton]. But Mercer also distrusted the Republican leadership. After … [Ted Cruz], dropped out of the race, Mercer sought a disruptive figure who could upend both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Patterson told me that Mercer seems to have applied ‘a very Renaissance Technologies way of thinking’ to politics: ‘He probably estimated the probability of Trump winning, and when it wasn’t very high he said to himself, ‘O.K., what has to happen in order for this twenty-per-cent thing to occur?’ It’s like playing a card game when you haven’t got a very good hand.” Mercer, as it happens, is a superb poker player, and his political gamble appears to have paid off. [Now], several people who have worked with Mercer believe that, despite his oddities, he has had surprising success in aligning the Republican Party, and consequently America, with his personal beliefs, and is now uniquely positioned to exert influence over the Trump Administration.”

Key quote from David Magerman, a longtime employee of the Mercer-run hedge fund: “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.”

— New York Magazine, “Kellyanne Conway Is a Star,” by Olivia Nuzzi: “Horrified critics of the president are often surprised to find that, in person, it’s very difficult to dislike Conway. With her airy voice and cheeky sense of humor, she’s charming and magnetic almost in the manner of a particularly gifted retail politician, and without the alien creepiness that actually being a politician sometimes requires. She’s a chronic oversharer (one with top-secret security clearance) who will let you in on the most intimate details of her existence in casual conversation. She’s also pathologically social, her life a hamster wheel of meetings, briefings, appearances, interviews, events, and cocktail parties — something that separates her from someone like [Steve Bannon]. ‘I have enough friends,’ Bannon told me. ‘I’m not doing this to have friends. I don’t socialize a lot, I don’t bring people into my life. This is like being in the Navy, this is like a duty. I don’t enjoy this every day. This is not living; this is a kind of existence.’”

— The Atlantic, “The Unsung Architect of Trumpism,” by Molly Ball: “Years before Conway went to work on Trump’s campaign—when she was still a midlist conservative pollster and Bannon was still running Breitbart—the two were charter members, Bannon recently told me, of the ‘cabal’ he was forming behind the scenes to upend the Republican establishment. And Conway’s ideas were the key to a major shift in the way Trump addressed immigration, which became his signature issue. One Conway poll in particular—a little-noticed 2014 messaging memo commissioned by a controversial anti-immigration group—Bannon cited as a sort of Rosetta stone of the message that powered Trump’s victory Conway’s role in shaping Trump’s political strategy … bears a deeper look. She played a key part in shaping the counterintuitive political theory—dismissed at the time by both Republicans and Democrats—that ended up putting Trump in the White House. That makes Conway a central figure in the political realignment Trump pulled off in 2016, far more than the mere talking head many take her for.”

— New York Times, “Donald Trump Jr. Is His Own Kind of Trump,” by Laura M. Holson: “Donald Trump Jr. is the Trump who has not always seemed at ease with being a Trump. He grew up in the penthouse of Trump Tower but was happy to escape the gilded trappings of his Manhattan childhood to spend parts of the summers hunting and fishing with his maternal grandfather in the woods of what was then Czechoslovakia. After graduating  … he tended bar in Aspen, Colo., rather than immediately join the family business. [And while Ivanka] Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, have lately elevated their social profile in Washington … her oldest brother has largely avoided the balls and benefits, preferring to hunker down in Midtown during the workweek and spend weekends in the Catskills with his wife, Vanessa, and their five children.

“Even as he embraces his new status in business and politics, Mr. Trump sounds, at times, as if it is some kind of anomaly. ‘I don’t know if I could go all-in at that,” Mr. Trump said of a political career. ‘There is a part that is incredibly enticing. But it’s not human most of the time.’ ‘If I could miracle myself away,’ he said, ‘I would live out West.’”

Tomi Lahren speaks at Politicon last year. (Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP)

THE FOURTH ESTATE:

— “Tracking the special treatment media get when they play nice with the White House,” by Margaret Sullivan: “Some people regard Tomi Lahren as a racist. But President Trump seems to like her style. He was so taken with Lahren’s recent appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that he rang her up. ‘He called and said, ‘Thank you for your fair coverage of me,’’ Lahren told Washingtonian magazine, which reported that the president had watched the show live as the 24-year-old waxed enthusiastic about why so many Americans had flocked to Trump: ‘They said: ‘Guess what? This man is doing something amazing.’’ With this uplifting example, I inaugurate an occasional feature: Access Watch, tracking the special treatment — phone calls, interviews, perhaps the lone press seat on the secretary of state’s plane — that can result when media people play nice. True, it is not the proper job of journalists to provide favorable coverage but rather to hold powerful figures accountable. But that doesn’t get you far these days, at least in terms of access. So we’ll be taking note of what does.”

— Lahren will likely leave The Blaze in September, “if not sooner,” after her aggressive rants on politically-charged topics placed her increasingly at odds with her coworkers, the Daily Caller reportsTensions were further exacerbated after Lahren came out as pro-choice during an appearance on “The View” – alienating much of her far-right fan base and calling pro-lifers “hypocrites”: “I can’t sit here and be a hypocrite and say I’m for limited government but I think the government should decide what women do with their bodies.”

— Jake Tapper spoke about how the media covers – and should strive to cover – the Trump administration. “Politicians lie. It wasn’t invented on January 20th,” Tapper said, noting remarks made by previous administrations. But he added: “I’ve never really seen this level of falsehood — just quantitatively.” And while that enforces the “media vs. Trump” narrative, he said it doesn’t mean the media should alter their coverage of the White House: “I refuse to buy into that paradigm. Because the truth of the matter is there’s no bias when it comes to facts, and there’s no bias when it comes to indecency.” (Aaron Blake)

SOCIAL MEDIA SPEED READ:

Looks who’s coming to Sesame Street:

President Obama said goodbye to Chuck Berry:

Some dispatches from Mar-a-Lago, where the president spent his weekend:

Nick Loeb (Sofia Vergara’s ex-boyfriend) meets Mike Pence:

Some tweets from Trump’s social media and a top adviser:

“Morning Joe” takes on the House GOP health care plan:

Some numbers Trump is bound to dislike:

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) protests the president’s budget for cutting some funding to Meals on Wheels:

Trump returned from Mar-a-Lago at dusk:

Ben Sasse shared this cat with fox tail tweet:

This sounds cool:

Check out this American Nazi organization pic from Madison Square Garden in 1939:

GOOD READS FROM ELSEWHERE:

— The New Yorker, “Can Chuck Schumer check Donald Trump?” by Elizabeth Kolbert: “The power of the Senate minority is purely negative: it can’t pass legislation; it can only block it. But even exercising negative power requires a great deal of discipline—potentially more than the Democrats can muster. Next year, ten Democratic senators will be up for reëlection in states that Trump carried. The President has been wooing these senators, and even considered naming two of them, Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, to his Cabinet. Meanwhile, Democratic activists—generally in blue states—are calling for round-the-clock resistance. Protesters have gathered in front of Schumer’s apartment … for rallies organized under the tagline ‘What the F…, Chuck?’ (At least one demonstrator brought a model of a skeleton, to illustrate the importance of a spine.) Can Schumer negotiate these currents? Can anyone? It seems no exaggeration to say that on these questions the future world depends. As Schumer himself put it the other morning, to the almost vacant Senate chamber, ‘This is not a drill.’”

— Vanity Fair, “Inside a Met director’s shocking exit and the billion-dollar battle for the museum’s future,” by William D. Cohan: “After the storied museum and its provocative director announced they were parting ways, William D. Cohan examines how a former wunderkind—and his mission to modernize—became a toxic mix for one of the world’s most powerful cultural institutions.”

— Vanity Fair, “Is Preet Bharara’s next move coming into focus?” by Tina Nguyen: “Out of the 46 U.S. attorneys who left their offices last week, none did so with more theatricality and fanfare than … Preet Bharara. [His wife] stood behind him, holding a bouquet of flowers the size of a beach ball; his school-age children walked by his side And somewhere nearby, bagpiges—the eternal soundtrack of police funerals and 9/11 memorial services—wailed mournfully for the departing public servant. ‘The Democratic Party needs people like Preet,’ Adam Levine, once a senior aide to New York senator Daniel Moynihan, told me. ‘It’s just a question of, is there the right spot that opens up for him?’ For a man who intuitively used the fast-paced news cycle of New York City to his advantage, and who prosecuted hundreds of cases at an alarmingly high speed, [the wait] might seem like an eternity. And for a man who has the best résumé for a national public career and has the love of a party in desperate need of national-level talent, it is a tragedy that for the moment, there is nowhere for him to channel that energy.”

HOT ON THE LEFT:

“Anti-Trump billboard artist receives death threats,” from The Arizona Republic: “Artist Karen Fiorito knew backlash was bound to come. And it has. Commissioned by a downtown Phoenix art gallery in January to create a billboard art piece that would comment on [Trump’s] administration, Fiorito said what she had in mind was going to stir up a controversy. Plastered on one side is a depiction of Trump’s face staring down. The red background is mingled with mushroom-cloud explosions and dollar signs in typography imitating Nazi swastikas. On the other side of the billboard, one word, ‘Unity,’ stretches across, accompanied by five hands spelling out the word in sign language. The Arizona State University alumnus said she and her husband, who don’t currently live in Arizona, began receiving threats Saturday morning. ‘I’ve been called a communist, a Satan worshiper,’ she said. ‘I’ve been told I’m a ‘very, very sick person.’” Others told her they were “coming to get” her family.  

 

HOT ON THE RIGHT:

“Police Are Using Fake Facebook Accounts To Track Gun Supporters, Says Lawyer,” from the Daily Caller: A lawyer says law enforcement in Dearborn, Mich., conducted a “political witch hunt” after his clients were arrested for carrying firearms into a police station. Brandon Vreeland, 40, and James Baker, 24, were arrested Feb. 5 after the younger one … walked into the police department with a short-barreled rifle strapped to his chest … Vreeland left his gun in the car so he could videotape the encounter as an experiment to see if police would respect the Second Amendment rights of the U.S. Constitution. Both have previously said they are legal gun owners, and that Michigan law allows them to carry their weapon openly, including in a police station. The men allege that police knew of their arrival because of a fake Facebook account that was used to track their activities. Officers reportedly had their guns drawn before Baker and Vreeland reached the precinct.”

DAYBOOK:

At the White House: Trump will meet with Bill Gates. Later, he will joined by Mike Pence for lunch and a meeting with Paul Ryan, HHS Secretary Tom Price, and Dr. Zeke Emanuel. He will then meet with Rex Tillerson and welcome the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq for bilateral meetings. Trump will then depart for to Louisville Air National Guard Base, where he will host a big rally before coming back to D.C.

Pence will join the Trump for lunch and the aforementioned meetings, before meeting with the Pro-Life Caucus in his ceremonial office in the late afternoon.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 

“We chose to hire a lot of alphas. People in politics are insecure and will either adapt to the fact that this is an entrepreneurial White House and survive, or they won’t. The cream will rise and the [expletive] will sink.” — A White House adviser speaks about infighting 

NEWS YOU CAN USE IF YOU LIVE IN D.C.:

— Finally, some spring-like weather! The Capital Weather Gang forecasts: “Lots of sunshine today helps temperatures rebound nicely after the chilly start. Afternoon highs should work well into the 50s or even touch 60 degrees.”

— A vendor of Girl Scout cookies was robbed in Georgetown. D.C. police said Sunday that a 17-year-old female was arrested for stealing a bag containing cash, not the cookies, in the 1200 block of Wisconsin Avenue NW. (Martin Weil)

VIDEOS OF THE DAY:

John Oliver devoted 12 minutes to Trump’s budget proposal on HBO last night:

Bill Maher describes why he now calls Trump “President Crazypants”:

The latest edition of Conan’s Trump-Obama phone calls:

Stephen Colbert wonders whether Trump released his tax returns to Rachel Maddow:

Tim Allen talks about going to Trump’s inauguration:

Jimmy Kimmel talks about how “drunk Donald Trump” is bad news:

Watch Seth Meyers interview Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance:

“The Americans” Keri Russell talks about how she met her co-star Matthew Rhys at a kickball party:

Asked about what he does to relax on Fox News, Trump gave an awkward, rambling response about his love for reading:

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is still seriously funny:

Watch these angry constituents confront Florda Rep. Vern Buchanan (R):

Virginia Democrats have a new way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day — bashing Trump:

Check out this incredible 70-foot buzzer shot:

Finally, here’s a fun video of toddlers skipping sleep to party in their room.