|“Woke Blacks” is one of the fake Facebook personas created by the Internet Research Agency to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The page encouraged African Americans not to vote. (Jon Elswick/AP)
|BY JAMES HOHMANN
|with Joanie Greve
THE BIG IDEA: A new report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee reveals that the Russians, in their bid to boost President Trump, have been more fixated than previously understood on trying to dampen African American political engagement.
Researchers at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm, spent seven months analyzing millions of social media posts that major technology firms turned over to congressional investigators. Their goal was to understand the inner workings of the Internet Research Agency, which the U.S. government has charged with criminal offenses for interfering in the 2016 election.
It turns out that African Americans were targeted with more Facebook ads than any other group, including conservatives.
Three of the four most-liked Facebook posts put up by the Russian influence effort came from an account called Blacktivist that urged the community to be more cynical about politics. African Americans were urged to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein throughout the month before the 2016 election. A post on Oct. 29 that year declared: “NO LIVES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON. ONLY VOTES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON.” A message on Nov. 3 added: “NOT VOTING is a way to exercise our rights.”
On Twitter, four of the Russian agency’s five most?retweeted accounts catered exclusively to African Americans.
On Instagram, all five of the most-liked posts created by the Russians were aimed at African American women. They included the hashtags #blackpower, #blackpride, #unapologeticallyblack, #blacklivesmatter, #icantbreathe, #riot and #blackgirlskillingit.
The influence operation – run out of St. Petersburg – was sophisticated, relentless and became more effective with time. Its goal was to manipulate identity politics to tear America apart. The Soviet Union had also tried to heighten racial divisions during the Cold War, but their operatives lacked access to the technology platforms that now make it so easy.
“Messaging to African Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities … including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration,” the report says. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead.”
The Internet Research Agency ran its disinformation campaign out of this office in St. Petersburg. The troll farm is one of a web of companies allegedly controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who reportedly has ties to Vladimir Putin. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
My colleagues Craig Timberg and Tony Romm exclusively obtained a draft of this study yesterday. The intelligence committee, led by Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), plans to publicly release it later this week, along with a separate report conducted by another team of researchers. It’s not clear whether they’ll formally endorse the findings. (Read the full story here.)
Craig and Tony generously shared with me their copy of the report, which runs around 90 pages. The Russian machinations to manipulate conservatives have been well covered over the past two years. But the scale of the operations focused on African Americans has never been laid out so vividly. And it’s especially notable because Clinton very narrowly lost three key states – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – because of lower-than-expected black turnout in the urban areas of Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee.
In addition to targeting major metropolitan areas that had become hot spots in the Black Lives Matter movement, the agency also microtargeted Ferguson, Mo. – attempting to reignite the flames of racial animus after the violence in the streets had died down. They used Facebook’s Ads Manager tool to target African Americans who were specifically interested in “Black Nationalism and identity,” as well as “incarceration” and the criminal justice system.
“The IRA used a variety of false personas (sock puppets) to infiltrate American political discussion communities on the right and left, including black activist communities, in order to exacerbate social divisions and influence the agenda,” the document explains. “Accounts posing as Americans on the right and left were frequently created and operated from the same computers.”
Vladimir Putin and President Trump are seen during the G-20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)
— The report is definitive that a central goal of all this was to elect Trump and, subsequently, to buoy him once he took office: “What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” it concludes. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”
— The Russian campaign generated levels of engagement that would make the marketing departments at even the country’s biggest corporations envious. Between 2015 and 2017, over 30 million users shared the agency’s Facebook and Instagram posts with their friends and family – liking, reacting to and commenting on them along the way. Their organic Facebook posts were shared 31 million times, liked 39 million times and generated 3.5 million comments. Their Instagram posts garnered almost 185 million likes and 4 million user comments. For the study, Twitter turned over 8.5 million tweets from 3,841 accounts believed to have been managed by the agency.
— The Russians used all the best practices of digital marketing. They primarily posted general feel-good posts to build large and loyal followings on their accounts so that the anti-Clinton political posts would pack more of a punch. They used tools designed to help American businesses reach customers to slice and dice the electorate for sinister propaganda purposes. The report says that the Russians used memes, comedy, funny pictures and music streaming to attract younger users.
“Facebook uses an auction system to price impressions for different segments, meaning different target interests are priced differently, according to advertiser demand,” the report explains. “Ads to African Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans, and youth were the cheapest, while ads to conservatives, Muslim Americans, and LGBT users were the most expensive. If we look at the amount spent in total, we see that a similar amount was spent on conservatives (a small number of expensive ads) as was spent on targeting African Americans (a large number of cheap ads).”
— There was a lot of trial and error, and the Russian agents used their experience targeting dissidents domestically to sow discord overseas. The group began targeting U.S. voters for misinformation as early as 2013, according to the report, using some of the techniques that it already deployed on its own citizens and in Eastern Europe. Several of the accounts had even been repurposed. Researchers found that one targeted an Indonesian audience in Indonesian before abruptly shifting to English-language posts about U.S. politics.
The Russians started on Twitter and then moved toward YouTube, progressed to Instagram and finally figured out Facebook. As they ramped up, they conducted dry runs to gauge their ability to influence Americans. For example, accounts aimed at both conservatives and liberals peddled an entirely fabricated story around Thanksgiving in 2015 that turkeys from Koch Farms and Walmart would cause food poisoning.
— One case study in an appendix of the report illustrates how the Russian effort evolved across platforms in a way that made it harder for technology companies to stop. “Black Matter US” was created to translate online activity into in-person activism for “the Black rights movement.” This fictionalized persona maintained accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google+ and Tumblr. The Internet Research Agency purchased Google ads to promote an associated website called blackmattersus.com and set up a PayPal account to encourage and accept donations to the false organization.
Its Twitter account, @blackmatterus, started in October 2015 and grew to have more than 20,000 followers. There were Twitter profiles set up for fictional African American “contributors” to the website; the made-up @Crystal1Johnson became the sixth-most-retweeted IRA asset. Most of the posts were written to amplify racial tensions.
The group’s Twitter account often linked to a Facebook page called “Black Matters” that acquired more than 222,000 followers. It encouraged African Americans to participate in real-life rallies against police treatment of minorities. The page promoted events in at least six cities, according to the report, from New York to Jackson, Miss., Detroit, Charleston and Baltimore. The report highlights 14 links from the @blackmatterus Twitter account to various Facebook events, including one called “Firearms Training Class for #BlackWomen.”
That Facebook account was shut down in August 2016. The very next day, a new Facebook account called “BM” was created. The original Twitter account, which was not closed at that point, accused Facebook of “supporting white supremacy” by shutting it down and pointed traffic to the new Facebook page. The Russians then began buying Google ads targeting African Americans with links to the “Black Matter US” website. One of the display ads said: “Cops kill black kids. Are you sure that your son won’t be the next?” This second Facebook page grew to 103,013 followers, according to the report. Its messages shifted to become less militant and more focused on positive black empowerment.
In August 2017, the original Facebook page somehow reemerged. “We’re back,” the Russians wrote. It’s since been deleted – again.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian leader Vladimir Putin during a dinner at a fancy restaurant he owns outside Moscow in 2011. Progozhin is known as “Putin’s chef” because he first curried favor with Putin through his stomach. According to an indictment earlier this year from special counsel Bob Mueller, Prigozhin and his companies provided significant funding to the Internet Research Agency. (Misha Japaridze/AP)
— Emboldened by Trump’s victory, the scale of the disinformation campaign picked up substantially after the 2016 election – especially on Instagram – until companies cracked down last summer. The report finds that the peak of ad volume on Facebook from the agency came in April 2017 around the Syrian missile strike. One notable development is that the Russians began to aggressively target Hispanics with what they dubbed a “Brown Power” campaign. Using many of the same themes they’d used with African Americans, they highlighted stories about deportations, discrimination and the treatment of migrants. It’s hard to believe, though not impossible, that the Russians could do all this without any advice from any Americans to understand how our process works. But the report doesn’t address that, and there’s much that remains unknown.
— The new report calls out Google, and its subsidiary YouTube, for being especially unhelpful to congressional investigators trying to study what the Russians were up to. “Unfortunately, Google made the unusual choice to provide data to the Committee in nonmachine?readable format,” the researchers complain. “The ads data was provided in lengthy PDF format whose pages displayed copies of information previously organized in spreadsheets (Google could have provided the original spreadsheets in CSV or JSON files). A separate folder contained 228 video files, without metadata, giving no details on the user that uploaded the video, which channels it may have been associated with, and the engagement that it received. Our investigation into the data provided by Twitter and Facebook suggests the IRA maintained other properties on Google products, notably Google+ profiles.” Google and YouTube did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
— Most sobering, though, the report suggests that the disinformation campaign is active and ongoing elsewhere: “The dataset only includes data provided by Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Although it is reasonable to assume that the core of the IRA’s effort was conducted on these platforms, other social media platforms also acknowledged that their internal investigations yielded IRA?related activity (notably Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Medium). Posts and profiles contained in this dataset clearly show other platforms were also targeted in this effort. Investigating the suspended pages and posts in the dataset also led to a high?probability of IRA?affiliated live pages still being online and posting.”
The authors sound a cautionary note about what’s become of the platforms that helped ignite the Arab Spring. “Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement,” they write, “to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike.”
WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING:
Hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises near Mogadishu, Somalia. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP)
— “The U.S. military says it has carried out six airstrikes in the Gandarshe area of Somalia which killed a total of 62 al-Shabab extremist rebels,” the AP reports. “In a statement issued Monday, the U.S. military’s Africa Command said it carried out four strikes on Dec. 15 in which 34 people were killed and two more on Dec. 16 which killed 28. All the air attacks were in the Gandarshe coastal area south of the capital, Mogadishu, it said. No civilians were injured or killed in the attacks, it said. All six strikes were carried out in close coordination with Somalia’s government, it said. The airstrikes were ‘conducted to prevent al-Shabab from using remote areas as a safe haven to plot, direct, inspire, and recruit for future attacks,’ it said.”
Jennifer Elmore has accused her father, a retired Army general, of sexually abusing her as a child. (Jeremy M. Lange for The Washington Post)
GET SMART FAST:??
- A retired Army general has been arrested on charges of sexually abusing his daughter for years. The Army determined there was enough evidence to hold a trial on the charges against Maj. Gen. James Grazioplene, but the service then dismissed the case because of a statute of limitations. He has now been indicted in Virginia — a second chance, his daughter Jennifer Elmore says, to hold him accountable. (Dan Lamothe)
- The Saudi government released a statement saying it “categorically rejects” the U.S. Senate resolution blaming the crown prince for the death of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia accused the Senate of making “unsubstantiated claims and allegations” and interfering in the country’s internal affairs. (Kareem Fahim)
- Malaysia filed criminal charges against Goldman Sachs in connection with the 1MDB financial scandal. The Wall Street bank is accused of omitting material information and publishing untrue statements in offering documents. (Wall Street Journal)
- Archaeologists have discovered a tomb in Egypt that is more than 4,400 years old and remains in nearly perfect condition. The tomb is believed to be the final resting place of a royal priest. Its excellent condition makes the find “one of a kind in the last decades,” an Egyptian official said. (Michael Brice-Saddler)
- A Massachusetts home that was inhabited by a woman accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials is on the market. The house in Framingham, Mass., has been extensively renovated and has been listed with an asking price of $975,000. (AP)
- A Texas woman who died while in the custody of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office had been detained on a $300 bond since July. A $30 payment probably would have been all that was required to get Janice Dotson-Stephens released from jail. Instead, she died Friday of apparently natural causes and has been held at the detention center’s infirmary. (KSAT)
- Colin Kroll, the co-founder of the HQ Trivia app, died of an apparent drug overdose at 34. New York police said officers found Kroll with cocaine and heroin in his apartment after someone requested that they check on him. (New York Times)
- New York police performed a “wellness check” on Pete Davidson after the SNL cast member posted a message to Instagram that appeared to indicate he was contemplating suicide. Officers said they met with Davidson in person after he wrote on Instagram, “i really don’t want to be on this earth anymore.” He later deleted his account. (CNN)
- Catriona Gray of the Philippines was named Miss Universe 2018. The 24-year-old singer and model beat out contestants from 93 other countries to take the crown. (AP)
- Former House speaker John Boehner is writing a memoir. Boehner’s book, titled “Notes From a Smoke-Filled Room,” is expected to recount his time in Washington from 1991 to 2015. (Politico)
- Merriam-Webster chose “justice” as its 2018 word of the year. The dictionary’s editor at large, Peter Sokolowski, said the word consistently appeared in the website’s top 20 or 30 look-ups. Although most people know the general definition of the word, Sokolowski said people might look it up to contemplate a current problem or seek motivation. (AP)
THE IMMIGRATION WARS:
— The government appears to be barreling toward a partial shutdown at the end of the week as Trump and congressional Democrats remain at loggerheads over funding for a border wall. Jeff Stein and Sean Sullivan report: “White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said Sunday that the administration would do ‘whatever is necessary to build the border wall,’ including shutting down the government, even as polling suggests most Americans want Trump to compromise with Congress on the issue. ‘This is a very fundamental issue,’ said Miller, who has pushed to severely curtail immigration to the United States, on CBS’s ‘Face The Nation.’ ‘At stake is the question of whether or not the United States remains a sovereign country.’ … Congressional Republicans had been scrambling to find an alternative that would avoid a shutdown — such as a short-term funding measure to keep the government open for two or three more weeks. But the White House has signaled it wouldn’t support such a resolution, making it much more likely that spending for the government will lapse. …
“The shutdown could leave about a quarter of the government, as well as one-third of federal workers, without funding as the holidays approach. Federal agencies and senior officials are already beginning to prepare for that possibility. Senate Democratic leaders signaled Sunday they were not budging from their negotiating position of providing $1.3 billion for border security — and they called on Trump to yield in his demands for $5 billion for the wall. ‘President Trump should understand — there are not the votes for the wall, in the House or the Senate. He is not going to get the wall in any form,’ Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on NBC’s ‘Meet The Press.’”
— Congressional Republican leaders fear they won’t even be able to persuade their own members to show up for a vote on a spending bill. The New York Times’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Emily Cochrane report: “Call it the revenge of the lame ducks. Many lawmakers, relegated to cubicles as incoming members take their offices, have been skipping votes in the weeks since House Republicans were swept from power in the midterm elections, and Republican leaders are unsure whether they will ever return. It is perhaps a fitting end to a Congress that has showcased the untidy politics of the Trump era: Even if the president ultimately embraces a solution that avoids a shutdown, House Republican leaders do not know whether they will have the votes to pass it.”
— The family of the 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in U.S. Border Patrol custody said she was healthy before she arrived. Michael Brice-Saddler reports: “Her family is now calling for an ‘objective and thorough’ investigation into her death, a representative for the family said Saturday. In a statement, the family’s attorneys disputed reports that the girl, Jakelin Caal, went several days without food and water before crossing the border, which contradicts statements by the Department of Homeland Security. Ruben Garcia, founder and executive director of Annunciation House — an El Paso-based nonprofit that aids migrants — said that the girl’s father, 29-year-old Nery Caal, said she was healthy and had no preexisting conditions.” Hospital officials who treated the girl said she probably died of sepsis shock.
— A Haitian asylum seeker who was held for two years in a detention facility — which was intended for only short-term stays — was released into the custody of an Ohio couple who took an interest in his case. Eli Saslow reports: “Rather than enter the country illegally, [Ansly] Damus had followed U.S. protocol by presenting himself to Border Patrol and saying he feared for his life. Then he had been handcuffed and flown to a detention facility with empty beds in Ohio, where he’d spent the past two years waiting for a final resolution in his case. The government had denied Damus parole because it considered him a flight risk with no meaningful connections in Ohio, but now the courtroom was filled with Ohioans who had come to support him. … [Melody] Hart and [Gary] Benjamin learned about his case from a friend involved in immigrant rights issues. Twice Damus had been granted asylum by the immigration courts, and twice the government had successfully appealed.”
— Trump’s travel ban is preventing a Yemeni mother from seeing her 2-year-old son, who is on life support in California. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Erin Allday reports: “Abdullah Hassan was born in Yemen with a rare brain disease that initially affected his ability to walk and talk but quickly worsened. He is no longer able to breathe on his own. His father, a U.S. citizen who lives in Stockton, brought him to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland for care about five months ago, and Abdullah is not expected to live much longer. The parents are ready to take Abdullah off life support, but they want his mother to have one more moment to hold him. So far, the U.S. State Department has ignored their pleas for a waiver to get her into the United States, they say.”
THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS:
— A growing number of Americans are expressing discomfort with Trump’s potential involvement in criminal wrongdoing. CNBC’s John Harwood reports on a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll: “A robust 62 percent majority say Trump has not been honest about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, up from 56 percent in August. A 46 percent plurality says guilty pleas by Trump associates suggest wrongdoing by the president as well, up from 40 percent in August and 36 percent a year ago. Half the public say the investigation by [Mueller] has given them more doubts about Trump’s presidency.”
— Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani dismissed the possibility the president will agree to an in-person interview with special counsel Bob Mueller. From Sean Sullivan: “‘Over my dead body,’ Giuliani said on ‘Fox News Sunday.’ ‘But you know, I could be dead.’ ‘Fox News Sunday’ host Chris Wallace followed up, pressing Giuliani on whether the special counsel wanted to speak with Trump. Giuliani did not respond directly … On ABC News’s ‘This Week,’ Giuliani was asked whether there were ongoing discussions about an interview. He replied that he was ‘not allowed’ to say. Giuliani added: ‘The agreement we had did contemplate that there’d be a period of time after the questions that we would have a discussion about whether there should be any further questions. So I’m not saying we are or we aren’t, but that’s in the agreement.’”
— Giuliani also criticized Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who said Trump knew of hush-money payments to his alleged mistresses. From NBC News’s Allan Smith: “‘Even if’ Cohen’s story ‘were true, it’s not a crime,’ Giuliani told Wallace. In both interviews, Giuliani was asked to respond to Cohen’s Friday interview with George Stephanopoulos on ‘Good Morning America.’ ‘Pathetic. The man is pathetic,’ Giuliani told Stephanopoulos in response to Cohen’s interview. ‘That was a lawyer you were interviewing. … He’s the guy you depend on to determine whether or not you should do it this way or that way.’ … In his interviews, Giuliani repeatedly questioned Cohen’s credibility. ‘I think I know what the truth is, but unless you’re God … you will never know what the truth is,’ he said, adding that Cohen ‘lies to fit the situation he’s in.’ Giuliani claimed there was ‘no way’ prosecutors could back up Cohen’s claims, insisting they didn’t have corroborating evidence.”
— Trump went after Cohen on Twitter as a “Rat,” eliciting comparisons to the language of mob bosses. “Remember, Michael Cohen only became a ‘Rat’ after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started,” Trump wrote. “They BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE! Why didn’t they break into the DNC to get the Server, or Crooked’s office?”
— Trump also suggested, without any basis, that “Saturday Night Live,” a comedy show, is violating the law by mocking him. “A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live,” Trump tweeted. “It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?”
Robert Mueller departs Capitol Hill following a closed-door meeting in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
— “Robert Mueller is the most unknowable man in Washington,” Roxanne Roberts writes in a new profile. “He will go down in history, for better or worse, as one of the pivotal figures of the Trump era. All this for a man who seldom speaks and is rarely seen. He is omnipresent and absent, inescapable but elusive, the invisible yang to Trump’s gold-plated yin. … Such is the peculiar nature of Washington that a powerful man who shuns the spotlight should become an object of fascination, and the specific character of Mueller — an old-school WASP indifferent to entreaties for speeches, interviews and photo-ops. More people have seen Robert De Niro playing Mueller on ‘Saturday Night Live’ than have seen the special counsel himself. ‘I always joke that Bob Mueller has turned down more interview requests in his career than most people in Washington ever get in the first place,’ says Garrett Graff, author of ‘The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror’ and Mueller’s de facto biographer. …
“By now, it goes without saying that Mueller and his prosecutors run the tightest ship in Washington. No interviews, no leaks, no whispers, no jokes, no nuthin’. In August, members of his team were spotted by the press waiting for a Shake Shack delivery at an Alexandria hotel during Paul Manafort’s trial. Shake Shack, huh? joked a reporter. Peter Carr, Mueller’s spokesman, would not even confirm the order. Mueller rarely ventures outside his temporary office in a nondescript federal building. … Mueller’s private life is even more circumspect. … In fact, virtually everyone within Mueller’s orbit refused to talk about him.”
— There are 17 known investigations into Russia and the Trump campaign. Garrett Graff lists the investigations in a new piece for Wired. The Mueller team’s probes include the Russian government’s election interference, WikiLeaks, Middle Eastern influence, Paul Manafort’s wrongdoing, the Trump Tower Moscow project, the Trump campaign’s other contacts with Russia and obstruction of justice.
— Mueller’s investigation appears to have turned a $23 million profit for the federal government because it’s forced people to pay taxes they had evaded. Fortune’s Emily Gillespie reports: “Mueller’s investigation has cost just over $25 million in the first 16 months of its investigation. … The Special Counsel’s Office released a new expenditure report Friday which revealed that the six months between the beginning of April through September cost about $4.5 million. … Though the investigation comes with a hefty price tag, it may have actually paid for its own investigation, with its probe leading to monetary estimated gains of up to $48 million for the government through the tax evasion the investigation has revealed.”
— The National Enquirer’s admission it purchased the stories of Trump’s alleged mistresses highlights how important the tabloid was to the president’s 2016 victory. The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg reports: “The Enquirer’s power was fueled by its covers. For the better part of the campaign season, Enquirer front pages blared sensational headlines about Mr. Trump’s rivals from eye-level racks at supermarket checkout lanes across America. … Wondering what The Enquirer’s covers were worth to the Trump campaign, I called Regis Maher, a co-founder of Do It Outdoors, the national mobile and digital billboard company. He said a campaign with that level of national prominence would cost $2.5 million to $3 million a month. … [The Enquirer] was the real-world embodiment of the fantasy online world of trolls, Russian and domestic, who polluted the political discourse.”
THE REST OF THE AGENDA:
— A federal judge’s Friday night ruling striking down Obamacare has injected uncertainty into the health-care system. Amy Goldstein reports: “The opinion, if upheld on appeal, would upend the health insurance industry, the way doctors and hospitals function, and the ability of millions of Americans to access treatments they need to combat serious diseases. Parts of the law that would need to be unwound include no-charge preventive services for older Americans on Medicare, allowing parents to keep children on their plans through age 26, a variety of efforts to rein in prescription drug costs and even requirements that some restaurants post calorie counts. … While the ruling by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor invalidated the law, it did not enjoin any of its provisions. The Trump administration immediately announced that the law the president sought to dismantle would stay in place for now.
“Over the weekend, Republicans and Democrats alike predicted it could take a year or more before the true significance of Friday night’s opinion by one conservative federal judge is known. Echoing the Trump administration, they said the ruling would begin a long path through the appellate courts, probably bringing the question of the ACA’s constitutionality before the Supreme Court for a third time. … If it stands, the most politically delicate part of the law at stake is its rule forbidding insurers from charging more to people with preexisting medical conditions or refusing to cover them at all.”
— Democrats believe the ruling throws a spotlight on an issue that works to their advantage for 2020. David Weigel reports: “When the presidential campaign truly begins, there will be a debate over universal health care on the Democratic side and a muddle on the Republican side. Even the most Trump-loyal Republicans, having watched the president undermine the House GOP’s ACA repeal push, don’t see him pitching and explaining a popular plan to expand insurance. And Democrats are excited about attacking ‘activist judges’ who want to undermine the ACA. … In 2020, Democrats plan to make this decision infamous, and ask voters whether they want their health care to be decided by some judge they’ve never heard of.”
— The ruling puts more pressure on congressional Republicans to come up with an alternative proposal to the ACA. From Sean Sullivan: “Agreeing on a replacement has been an elusive goal for the GOP, which tried and failed to pass a plan in the Senate last year. … With Democrats about to take control of the House, their window for getting an Obamacare alternative to Trump’s desk has effectively closed for the next two years. However, there is still a political imperative for Republicans to rally around a plan of their own, especially ahead of 2020 elections for president and Congress.”
— The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote the ruling was likely to be reversed and “may boomerang politically on Republicans.” From the editorial: “No one opposes ObamaCare more than we do, and Democrats are now confirming that it was designed as a way-station to government-run health care. But a federal judge’s ruling Friday that the law is unconstitutional is likely to be overturned on appeal … The Supreme Court’s ‘severability’ doctrine calls for restraint in declaring an entire law illegal merely because one part of it is. Our guess is that even the right-leaning Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judges will overturn Judge O’Connor on this point.”
— Trump said he will review the case of a former Special Forces officer facing a murder charge in the death of a suspected Taliban bombmaker. Dan Lamothe reports: “Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn was notified Thursday by the Army that he will face one charge of murder, his attorney and the Army said. The military has been investigating him since 2011, when Army officials said he confessed during a polygraph test as part of a CIA job interview to killing the suspected bombmaker in February 2010. ‘At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder,’ Trump tweeted. ‘He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas.’”
— The Senate will vote tonight to open debate on the chamber’s criminal justice bill. USA Today’s Eliza Collins and Deborah Barfield Berry explain the bill’s long journey to the Senate floor: “A frustrated Chuck Grassley pulled over on a gravel road two miles from his Iowa farm to talk to the president who was flying home on Air Force One. It was 3:15 p.m. Friday and the criminal justice reform bill the Iowa Republican had been championing was stuck at a roadblock — Mitch McConnell. Grassley made his pitch. ‘I used what I consider a historical argument. I said, ‘Listen, majority leaders, if they’re the same party as the president, ought to be carrying out the president’s agenda,’ Grassley recalled … At 3:56 p.m. Trump fired off a tweet. ‘Hopefully Mitch McConnell will ask for a VOTE on Criminal Justice Reform. It is extremely popular and has strong bipartisan support,’ he wrote. … Four days later, to the surprise and relief of supporters, McConnell went to the Senate floor and announced he would put the bill to a vote.”
— House Democrats plan to quickly pursue passage of gun-control legislation after they retake control of the chamber. Politico’s John Bresnahan, Heather Caygle and Laura Barrón-López report: “With backing from [Nancy Pelosi] and key chairmen, Democrats will move to require federal background checks on all gun sales, part of a broader effort by the party to advance long-stalled gun control measures. While the proposal won’t get through the Republican-run Senate, much less become law, getting through the House will be a win for the gun-control movement, which has little to cheer about since [Trump] was sworn into office.”
Joe Biden speaks at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
— Joe Biden is Iowa voters’ top choice for the 2020 Democratic nomination, according to a Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll. The Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel reports: “Thirty-two percent of respondents say [Biden] is their first choice for president. [Bernie] Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont who narrowly lost in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, follows Biden with 19 percent. … Thirty-six percent of poll respondents say a political ‘newcomer’ is best suited to defeat the president. In that role, Iowans currently favor Beto O’Rourke … O’Rourke earns support from 11 percent of respondents, who say he’s their first choice for president. Eight percent say Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is their first choice. No other candidate tops 5 percent.”
— Note: All three of the leading Democrats in the Register poll are white men.
— The same poll found a majority of Iowa Republicans believe the GOP should welcome those who want to challenge Trump in the primary. CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta reports: “Overall, 67% of registered Republicans say they would definitely vote to re-elect Trump if the election were held today, 19% would consider someone else and just 10% of the state’s Republicans say they would definitely vote for someone else. … Just a quarter (26%) say the Iowa Republican Party should discourage challengers to the President, while 63% feel the party ought to welcome them.”
— Republican women in Congress fear their numbers have fallen to a “crisis level” and are imploring party leaders to create a strategy for improvement. Elise Viebeck and Felicia Sonmez report: “House Republicans, who have already elected men to their top two posts, will see their group of women reduced by almost half to just 13, with West Virginia’s Carol Miller the lone GOP woman in the freshman class. … The GOP’s poor performance with women this election cycle has exposed sensitive fault lines within the party over identity politics and how to win elections. Republican leaders often hedge on whether recruiting female candidates should be a top priority, saying they want whoever is most qualified. The need for more female lawmakers to better reflect the country — or at least to win votes from more women — has not been a given for all party members.”
— Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she is open to fellow Republicans challenging Trump for the 2020 nomination. From Jeff Stein: “[Collins] argued that primaries help shape policy by allowing ‘a lot of viewpoints to surface.’ Several other Republican senators have endorsed Trump’s 2020 aspirations, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). ‘I see nothing wrong with challengers — that is part of our democratic system,’ Collins said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union.’ ‘It’s healthy for our democracy.’”
— Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a frequent critic of the president, declined to say whether he thought Trump should be primaried. From HuffPost’s David Barden: “In an interview with MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt Sunday night, the retiring senator referred to republicanism under Trump as an ‘anomaly,’ adding that Americans needed to be reminded about what the GOP has been about ‘for generations.’ ‘What is happening right now is not the standard Republicanism that we have had in our country for many, many years and it’s very different,’ Corker said.”
— Several Democratic presidential aspirants are proposing policies that would directly give money to lower-income Americans. NBC News’s Benjy Sarlin reports: “A suite of big ticket bills by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would directly transfer upward of trillions of dollars in cash directly to Americans. … Brown is co-sponsoring bills that would massively expand the refundable earned income tax credit (EITC), which subsidizes wages for low income workers, and the child tax credit (CTC). Harris’ LIFT the Middle Class Act would send up to $500 a month to families, $250 to single people, and pay at least some benefits to households making as much as $100,000 per year. And Booker has a plan to give every single American a $1,000 interest-bearing ‘baby bond’ at birth.”
— DNC Chairman Tom Perez blasted state parties over their proposal for handling the party’s voter data file. Politico’s Alex Thompson reports: “Just days before an important Tuesday meeting in D.C. on the future of the data operation, Perez sharply criticized a new proposal from state party leaders and singled out prominent state officials by name. … The national chairman, describing his own reaction to the state proposal as ‘disappointed’ and ‘dumbfounded,’ accused the president of the Association of State Democratic Committees, Minnesota’s Ken Martin, of undermining the DNC by not keeping other state party officials ‘in the loop,’ prompting withering criticism of Perez from state party leaders.”
— New Jersey Democrats have backed away from a plan to redraw district lines in a manner that was widely criticized as gerrymandering. The New York Times’s Nick Corasaniti reports: “Stephen M. Sweeney, the Senate president, and Craig J. Coughlin, the Assembly speaker, both released statements on Saturday night announcing they would not put the proposal up for a vote on Monday, the final day of voting in the State Senate. … The proposal was opposed by numerous political factions: Republicans, progressives, nonpartisan pollsters, Gov. Philip D. Murphy, who is a Democrat, and Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general under President Barack Obama who is the current leader of a national group combating gerrymandering. … But the opposition may not have been the only reason Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Coughlin canceled a vote, essentially killing the bill. Support was beginning to wane among members of their own caucus.”