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McConnell retreats as Trump dominates the GOP civil war

There are two big arguments dominating American politics right now. Democrats are currently in disarray trying to figure out the future. The questions they have are about how bold they should be in using their new powers: More stimulus? Use reconciliation? Kill the filibuster? Abandon outreach to Republicans?

Republicans are mired in a debate about the past: what to do about DONALD TRUMP. The all-consuming conversation about this single political actor is eclipsing everything else on the right: policy debates, political strategy, the advancement of fresh faces.

The spate of threatened primary challenges ripping the party apart are uniformly about loyalty to Trump. The state-level intra-party spats that have made headlines in Arizona, Kentucky and Oregon are not about raising up the best political strategists to steer the local parties forward; they are about condemning Republicans who have criticized Trump. The GOP’s potential 2024 aspirants are frozen in place, still being asked to respond to every scrap of Trump news and stuck in an endless cycle of political calculation about whether it’s safe to unyoke themselves from him.

MITCH MCCONNELL — Mitch McConnell! — suggested he’d finally had enough when, in his words, a “mob” of protesters that “was fed lies” stormed Congress after “they were provoked by the president.” McConnell, the NYT reported, “has concluded that President Trump committed impeachable offenses and believes that Democrats’ move to impeach him will make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the party.” He never said it out loud, but his team conspicuously declined to contradict the report (and still hasn’t — we checked Tuesday night), and he seemed to be signaling that it was safe for Republicans to contemplate convicting Trump. A window opened for the GOP to rid itself of the former president.

A week later everything has changed again. Most Republicans have moved on from their brief moment of reflection about why Jan. 6 happened and replaced those concerns with fears about the left using the event to crush anyone who ever supported Trump. Exhibit A, in their view, is Big Tech’s deplatforming campaign, and Exhibit B is impeachment.

McConnell was quickly drowned out by the same populist forces that have convulsed America — and that he has struggled to control — for five years. Rep. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-Ga.) unironically said that the “vast majority” of Republicans “are no longer loyal to the GOP” but that their “loyalty now lies with Donald J. Trump.” Rep. MATT GAETZ (R-Fla.) is on his way to Wyoming to troll Rep. LIZ CHENEY (R-Wyo.) and declared that impeachment was just a part of left-wing cancel culture.

On Tuesday, when Sen. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.) forced a vote on whether the trial was legitimate, all eyes turned to McConnell. He voted with all but five of his Republican colleagues in favor of Paul’s objection declaring that the trial was unconstitutional.

Our latest POLITICO-Morning Consult poll has fresh data that underscores what McConnell faced:

Over half of Republican voters (56%) believe that Trump should either probably or definitely run for president again in 2024. Just over a third of Republican voters (36%) think he probably or definitely should not.

Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters are closely split between the Republican Party and the notional Patriot Party that Trump recently floated. A third (33%) said they are more interested in being a member of the Republican Party, and 30% said they would be more interested in being a member of the Patriot Party. A small share (11%) expressed interest in neither party.

McConnell made a point of telling reporters Tuesday that the last time he spoke to Trump was way back on Dec. 15. He declined to answer a question from CNN’s MANU RAJU about whether he believed Trump’s actions were impeachable. So perhaps the window McConnell opened is not fully closed.

FOGGY BOTTOM BLUES: When Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN arrives at Foggy Bottom today to take the helm, he’ll be greeted by a staff of career diplomats feeling beaten down after four years under Trump. Many of them are growing doubtful they’ll be elevated to higher positions despite President JOE BIDEN’S campaign promise to dramatically improve how they’re treated.

Not a single career official was named in the first wave of top appointments that require Senate confirmation. While some in the new administration point to UZRA ZEYA and VICTORIA NULAND as longtime former career officials who have been nominated for undersecretary posts, others note that they left government rather than sticking around through the Trump years.

“None of the people who were there for the last four years, who understand how the world has changed, will be in the room when the big decisions were being made,” says BRETT BRUEN, who before becoming a consultant served on the Obama National Security Council.

The Biden administration has quickly filled 100 of the 150 political appointments that were vacant, which may be adding to the feeling that the department is being taken over by political appointees. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the top three positions at State — secretary, deputy secretary and undersecretary for political affairs — have gone to political appointees. It’s the first time since 1997 that’s been the case.

The State Department is expected to announce soon that a number of career officials will be promoted to top jobs. In the meantime, though, we’re hearing some grumbling that the initial round of appointments are a slight to hardworking rank-and-file officials. In the past, they’ve seen expertise and years of service trumped by outsiders and monied donors who end up in top ambassadorships in places like Western Europe.

“The diplomatic corps has been battered and bruised,” said a U.S. diplomat. “Why not come explain your thinking? I’m prepared for disappointment and under-delivering from this team. I don’t expect huge improvements unfortunately.”

A Blinken spokesperson told us: “Under Secretary Blinken’s leadership, career experts will always be at the center of our diplomacy, and he is committed to ensuring that they will help to lead it by serving in many of the Department’s most senior positions.”

BIDEN’S WEDNESDAY — The president and VP KAMALA HARRIS will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9:30 a.m. Then Biden will speak about climate change, job creation and scientific integrity at 1:30 p.m. in the State Dining Room, with Harris attending. Press secretary JEN PSAKI will be joined by Special Presidential Envoy for Climate JOHN KERRY and National Climate Adviser GINA MCCARTHY at her 12:15 p.m. briefing.

Harris will also swear in Blinken as secretary of State at 11:45 a.m.

CPAC STRUGGLING — Another example of GOP difficulties navigating the aftermath of Trump’s loss: “For decades, the Conservative Political Action Conference has been a staple of Republican politics. In recent years, the conservative confab has been the go-to stop for rising GOP stars, grassroots organizers, and luminaries in the Trump movement. But President Donald Trump’s election loss has created hurdles around programming and guest booking,” report Gabby Orr and Daniel Lippman.

“Stringent coronavirus guidelines in Maryland have pushed the conference outside of the Washington, D.C. area for the first time in nearly 50 years. Previous sponsors aren’t yet committed or have decided to forego sponsorship entirely due to changes to the event’s format or disappointment in the return on their investment last year. And the president that attendees adored so much may not show up to the event at all.”

UP ON CAPITOL HILL

BIPARTISAN COVID TALKS — REAL OR FOR SHOW? There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about the White House trying to win Republican support for Biden’s Covid relief plan. But despite outreach to groups like the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and the 16 moderates in the Senate, Democratic leaders are preparing to move ahead on reconciliation. Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER said that he’d put a budget on the floor as early as next week. The House will do the same. Those are the first steps to unlocking the fast-tracking tool.

But will moderates who’d prefer to negotiate with Republicans — including Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) — be OK with it? With a 50-50 Senate, Schumer can’t lose a single Democrat. “I’ll guarantee you I can sit down with my Republican friends and find a pathway forward,” he told Burgess Everett. “Let me try first.”

Our sources are also wondering whether Manchin will balk at the $1.9 trillion price tag of Biden’s relief package, making it difficult for Democrats to move quickly.

MINIMUM WAGE FIGHT BREWING — Here’s another Democratic fault line to keep an eye on: Sen. BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.), who chairs the budget committee, wants to use reconciliation to push through a $15 minimum wage as part of Biden’s coronavirus proposal. Technically, reconciliation can only be used to make fiscal policy changes that significantly alter federal revenues or spending. Sanders thinks Dems can fudge that rule, but doing so could change Senate rules from here on out — and potentially empower Republicans to try something similar down the line.

It’s already making some Democrats nervous. “I’m not sure it’s the smartest thing to do,” House Budget Chair JOHN YARMUTH (D-Ky.) told our colleagues. But if Democrats don’t try to jam this through with reconciliation, it will never clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.

RELATED: “Democrats push $15 minimum wage bill,” by NBC’s Haley Talbot

TRIGGERING K STREET “Business groups prepare for lobbying push against $15 minimum wage,” The Hill

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-N.J.) will meet with MERRICK GARLAND today. The meeting comes on the same day that Booker and Sen. DICK DURBIN (D-Ill.) are introducing a new plan to eliminate the sentencing disparity for Americans convicted of crack versus powdered cocaine. Garland’s views on racial justice issues are not well known compared with other potential candidates Biden could have picked for A.G., and Booker, who like Durbin sits on the Judiciary Committee, is sure to press the issue when they chat later via Zoom.

MCCARTHY’S BIG HEADACHE — “Marjorie Taylor Greene indicated support for executing prominent Democrats in 2018 and 2019 before running for Congress,” by CNN’s Em Steck and Andrew Kaczynski: “In one post, from January 2019, Greene liked a comment that said ‘a bullet to the head would be quicker’ to remove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”

McCarthy’s spokesman Mark Bednar told Axios the leader plans to have a talk to Greene about this: “These comments are deeply disturbing and Leader McCarthy plans to have a conversation with the Congresswoman about them.” But critics of McCarthy will be quick to remind people that the leader — unlike some of his GOP colleagues — did little to keep Greene from winning her primary at a time when others tried to stop her election.

THE PANDEMIC

BIG NEWS — “Biden administration to buy 200 million more doses of Covid vaccine,” by Adam Cancryn and Rachel Roubein: “Federal officials negotiating for the new supply expect to receive 100 million doses each from Moderna and Pfizer, in deals set to boost the nation’s total vaccine capacity to 600 million. That would give the U.S. the ability to eventually vaccinate up to 300 million Americans, President Joe Biden said on Tuesday.”

TRACKER: The U.S. reported 3,734 Covid-19 deaths and 144,000 new coronavirus cases Tuesday.

BIDEN’S WHITE HOUSE

PAGING NETANYAHU — “Biden Will Restore U.S. Relations With Palestinians, Reversing Trump Cutoff,” NYT: “The Biden administration will restore diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, more than two years after President Donald J. Trump effectively ended them. The action signals a return to a more traditional and evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a Trump administration policy that was heavily slanted toward Israel.”

NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN — “First Biden-Putin call shows both cautious on big concerns,” AP: “According to the White House, Biden raised concerns about the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Russia’s alleged involvement in a massive cyber espionage campaign and reports of Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan. The Kremlin, meanwhile, focused on Putin’s response to Biden’s proposal to extend the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control treaty.”

RELATED: “AP Exclusive: DOJ rescinds ‘zero tolerance’ immigration rule,” AP

JAN. 6 FALLOUT

INVESTIGATIONS UPDATE PART I — “Probe of Capitol riot swells further,” by Josh Gerstein: “Law enforcement has identified more than 400 suspects and has brought federal criminal charges against over 150 people for actions related to the storming of the Capitol.”

INVESTIGATIONS UPDATE PART II — “Proud Boys Under Growing Scrutiny in Capitol Riot Investigation,” NYT: “The leadership of the Proud Boys has come under increased scrutiny as agents and prosecutors across the country try to determine how closely members of the far-right nationalist group communicated during the riot at the Capitol this month… At least six members of the organization have been charged in connection with the riot, including one of its top-ranking leaders, Joseph Biggs.”

MEANWHILE: “The Woman Accused Of Stealing Pelosi’s Laptop Says She Doesn’t Have It,” BuzzFeed

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK, via Holly Otterbein: Hillary Clinton’s former rapid response director, Zac Petkanas, is launching a new group aimed at helping Biden push through a major stimulus package and other big public investments. Invest in America and its 501(c)(4) sister arm will use TV ads, digital spots, polling and surrogates to try to take on what Petkanas calls “fear-mongering” about the deficit. 1-minute ad

Top funders include Facebook-co-founder-turned-Facebook-critic Chris Hughes, the philanthropic group Omidyar Network and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The organization, which is starting with “a mid-seven-figure budget,” plans to brief the Hill on its survey showing 77% of registered voters want another stimulus bill.

“Everybody remembers what happened during the last economic crisis, where big, bold action was necessary, but it had to be negotiated with those who were saying we couldn’t afford to take action,” Petkanas said. “We weren’t going to be caught by surprise this time.”

— Denise Dunckel has been named CEO of the American Fair Credit Council. She was a political appointee in the George W. Bush White House and spent 16 years in D.C. in the financial services sector and economic policy realm.

MEDIAWATCH

— BUZZ IN THE POST NEWSROOM ABOUT NEXT EDITOR: The news the Washington Post newsroom has been bracing for the past year arrived Tuesday: MARTY BARON is retiring, and a reordering of the senior ranks is coming. But many Post reporters didn’t expect the announcement so soon, predicting their longtime leader would stay on at least through the summer.

Word in the newsroom is that FRED RYAN, the Post’s publisher and CEO, does not want a lengthy transition period between editors. So there’s internal speculation that perhaps he’s further into the hiring process than people realize, especially since folks saw this coming months ago.

STEVEN GINSBERG is seen as the most likely internal candidate. The affable head of the national desk has a reputation for supporting his reporters and is beloved by them. He led a big chunk of the newsroom through the Trump years as the president made a sport of attacking the media, including some Post reporters. But Ginsberg is white and male at a time when the diversity of newsroom leadership is under heightened scrutiny.

KEVIN MERIDA, the highly regarded former Post editor who left for ESPN a few years ago, is the other most-talked-about name. He’d be the first non-white male executive editor of the Post at a time when many in the newsroom feel it’s about time. Merida, who grew up in Prince George’s County, has also worn several caps at the Post, from writing political profiles to editing the Style section and taking a turn as national editor in the early Obama years. Baron also made Merida his managing editor, the second-ranking position in the newsroom, before he left for ESPN.

Others could emerge, some Post employees say. One name that’s surfaced is ANNE KORNBLUT, a former Post reporter and editor who left for Facebook in 2015. Another is Baron’s current No. 2, managing editor CAMERON BARR. But if Barr doesn’t get it and leaves, Ryan would be in position to bring on two new top editors in short succession.

Former Trump economic adviser LARRY KUDLOW has landed at Fox News Media, but another Trump staffer, KAYLEIGH MCENANY, wasn’t so fortunate. A source familiar with the negotiations said McEnany was also in talks to move over to Fox (as was revealed in her financial disclosure forms), but the network’s conversations with the former White House press secretary stopped after the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol. The source said the door isn’t closed for McEnany — the talks have just been put on ice and may pick up again in the future. More from the NYT

The Atlantic is adding three senior editors: Daniel Engber on the science desk, joining from Wired; Chris Ip in the culture section, joining from Engadget; and Honor Jones on the magazine staff, joining from the NYT.

STAFFING UP — Mieke Eoyang will be deputy assistant secretary of Defense for cyber policy. She most recently has been SVP for national security at Third Way and an MSNBC contributor.

TRANSITIONS — Charlotte Clymer will be director of comms and strategy at Catholics for Choice, which is also adding John Becker and Randi Garcia. Clymer most recently was press secretary for rapid response at the Human Rights Campaign. … Christian LoBue is now chief campaigns and advocacy officer at NARAL Pro-Choice America. She most recently was chief of staff at Voting Rights Lab. … Sam Paisley is now press secretary for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). She previously was press secretary for MJ Hegar’s Senate campaign in Texas. …

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) has added Michael Brewer as comms director and Meredith Brasher as press secretary. … Madeline McDaniel is now comms director at Invest in America. She was previously deputy press secretary at Everytown for Gun Safety. … Manuel Bonder is now deputy comms director for the Democratic Party of Virginia. He previously was comms adviser at the South Carolina Democratic Party (for Jaime Harrison’s Senate campaign) and is a Pete Buttigieg alum.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Josh Teitelbaum, senior counsel at Akin Gump and an Obama Commerce and Kay Hagan alum, and Emily Teitelbaum, VP of comms at Wells Fargo, welcomed Samuel Alexander Teitelbaum on Monday. Pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Chief Justice John Roberts … WaPo’s Holly Bailey … C-SPAN’s Howard Mortman Ben Owens, legislative assistant for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) … Nomiki KonstEmily Skor, CEO of Growth Energy … Josh Teitelbaum, senior counsel at Akin Gump … Heather NauertNick Mason

Got a document to share? A birthday coming up? Been vaccinated? Drop us a line at [email protected] or individually: Tara Palmeri, Rachael Bade. Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza

Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike Zapler and producers Allie Bice, Eli Okun and Garrett Ross.

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