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The Daily 202: Biden’s Yemen policy breaks with Obama. There may be more daylight to come.


Barack Obama began U.S. cooperation with the Saudi-led war in Yemen, fueling what is now the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” Donald Trump’s unstinting instincts were to deepen it, even as his administration pared back some key elements. President Biden announced Thursday he’s keeping a campaign pledge and ending America’s five-year involvement.

The news came in the Delaware Democrat’s first foreign policy speech since taking office, a whirlwind 20-minute rhetorical world tour in which he promised a hard line on China and Russia but did not mention North Korea, Afghanistan, or the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden also left open the future of U.S.-Saudi relations more broadly, which are under review. Trump’s immediate and full-throated support for the kingdom’s operations in Yemen, which Obama had come to criticize sharply by late 2016, showed his eagerness to court an ally central to his plans to confront Iran.

Biden’s decision on Yemen turns the page on a tragic legacy left by the man he served as vice president for eight years and frequently invoked on the campaign trail. It’s also a hint of how the president might break from Obama even after filling the foreign policy ranks of his administration with familiar faces from 2009 through 2017. 

Obama and Biden both took office facing daunting economic crises dominating the domestic agendas of their early days, each with Democratic majorities in Congress. While Biden’s majority is slimmer, he has thus far seemed to heed progressive warnings not to repeat the errors of 2009, when Obama courted GOP votes by watering down his economic stimulus package. The final Obama legislation drew just three Republican senators. Now, Biden has shown some willingness to negotiate on his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package while still saying he’s ready to act with only Democratic support.

Biden’s top national security and foreign policy aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will meet today at the White House for a conversation expected to focus on Iran and the president’s promise to reenter and strengthen the nuclear deal with Tehran. “The meeting today is part of an ongoing policy review. It is not decisional,” meaning no specific policy recommendation was expected, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Twitter.

The president has the greatest latitude on foreign policy and the freedom now not just to break with Trump’s approach but embrace a different strategy than Obama. Already, Biden has become the first president in years to take office not explicitly promising better relations with Russia. And his tough talk on China suggests another area in which the two Democratic administrations will differ.

As a senator, Biden was all over the map on the use of military action, voting against the 1991 resolution authorizing the Gulf War and in favor of authorizing George W. Bush to use force ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But as Obama’s vice president, Biden was fiercely skeptical of U.S. military action, especially in Afghanistan.

At the State Department on Thursday, Biden did not flesh out his philosophy for when he would use American military might. Instead, he declared “diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.

Of Yemen, he said, “this war has to end … and to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”

The president’s announcement of an end to U.S. support for military operations seemed heavily symbolic. At its height, that effort had included providing intelligence logistical help as well as arms sales in the billions of dollars to the Saudi-led coalition, as well as airborne refueling that made possible strikes deeper in Yemeni territory.

“According to Mick Mulroy, who served as a top Pentagon official on the Middle East during the Trump administration, the only military support that remained was U.S. coaching of Saudi officials, a program intended to reduce civilian casualties, and intelligence sharing focused on Houthi threats against the Persian Gulf kingdom.

Biden did not say which arms sales were “relevant,” though the administration has paused a package of weapons Trump intended for the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally.

And he left undefined the full scope of what operations fell into the “offensive” category. The Saudi-helmed coalition maintains a blockade of Yemeni ports, which humanitarian groups charge has worsened the catastrophic conditions afflicting the population. But it’s unclear whether and how the United States supports it.

Asked to flesh out the definition of “offensive,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House “it extends to the types of offensive operations that have perpetuated a civil war in Yemen that has led to a humanitarian crisis.
 
And “examples of that include two arms sales of precision-guided munitions that the President has halted, that were moving forward at the end of the last administration,” Sullivan said.

In Congress, those incidents fed growing concerns about just what America was abetting. The killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul added fresh worries Riyadh was reckless.

But it was never enough to fully stop the assistance, leading Biden to act. 

A measure of the symbolic value of his announcement could be drawn from the fact that the Saudis announced the start of their military operations in Yemen in March 2015 from their embassy in Washington.

What’s happening now

During a meeting with Democratic lawmakers this morning, Biden cited today’s dismal jobs report to justify the size of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan. Biden projected that it would take the U.S. “10 years to get to full employment” at the current pace, Felicia Sonmez reports. He emphasized that “the end result is not just macroeconomic impact on the economy and our ability to compete internationally — it’s people’s lives.”

The U.S. economy added 49,000 jobs last month, a modest increase. The unemployment rate fell to 6.3 percent, Eli Rosenberg reports. The January data, released by the Labor Department, shows the country has recovered just over half of the 22 million jobs lost between February and April. 

The House is poised to advance a budget plan today. The plan directs committees to start working on the details of Biden’s stimulus package, Jeff Stein and Erica Werner report. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the House will start writing legislation next week to create a path for the relief plan and expects the  package to be ready before the end of February.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) responded to the House vote last evening to boot her from her committee assignments for espousing several conspiracy theories. In a news conference outside the Capitol this morning, Greene accused Democrats of silencing her and her constituents. 

  • “They actually stripped my district of their voice. They stripped my voters of having representation to work for them,” she said, adding booting her from the House Education and Labor, and House Budget committees was okay  because they were a “waste” of her time.
  • Trump’s impeachment trial next week, she added, “is a circus.” “Everyone here knows that he didn’t cause [the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol], nor did I,” she said. The Republican Party, she added, “is [Trump’s] it doesn’t belong to anybody else.”

The Trump administration’s pardon process broke down in favor of the rich and well-connected, scoops The Post’s Beth Reinhard, Rosalind Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Josh Dawsey report. Trump’s use of his pardon power reflects how he viewed the presidency “through the prism of his own interests and as a way to reward friends and spite enemies … In all, Trump granted 237 pardons and commutations, according to the Justice Department, the majority of which he issued during his last night as president. A Post review of pardon records found that about 100 of those granted clemency had never even petitioned the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), whose House Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing next week about preventing abuse of the clemency process, said a full-scale Congressional investigation of Trump’s pardons is needed.

My colleagues report on an emergency “cottage industry” of lobbyists and lawyers seeking access to the White House for pardons of people like Alice Johnson, who was serving a life sentence for a first-time drug offense and whose release was championed by reality TV star Kim Kardashian.

  • “Johnson became part of an informal kitchen cabinet that included [former U.S. attorney Brett] Tolman, who echoed Trump’s concerns about voter fraud in the November presidential election; Mark Holden, chairman of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity; Matt Whitaker, a former acting U.S. attorney general under Trump; and Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general who represented the president in his first impeachment,” they report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

… and beyond

  • U.S. Coronavirus Cases Are Down, but Eclipse Spring and Summer Peaks,” by the New York Times’ Lazaro Gamio: “The current decline remains most pronounced in the Midwest. In Hennepin County, home to Minneapolis, daily cases have fallen to roughly 200 from 1,200. Wayne County, home to Detroit, saw a similar drop, to 220 from 1,200.”
  • Trump’s allies fear the impeachment trial could be a PR nightmare,” by Politico’s Gabby Orr and Meredith McGraw: “The concern among Trump’s allies that the trial will be a relitigation of the events at the Capitol underscores the degree to which next week is being viewed as a public relations matter for the optics-obsessed former president. It was notable on Thursday that in a letter dismissing the House impeachment managers’ calls for Trump to testify at the trial, the ex-president’s lawyers decried the request as a ‘public relations stunt.’”
  • McKinsey to pay Vermont $1.5 million for its part in creating the opioid crisis,” by VTDigger’s Emma Cotton: “McKinsey & Co., one of the world’s largest consulting firms, will pay $573 million in a multi-state settlement to 47 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories over the opioid scandal. Vermont was part of a 10-state executive team that led the investigation into McKinsey.” 

The Republican Party

The divided GOP is worried its big tent will mean big problems in 2022. 

  • The vote to defend Greene’s role in Congress will almost certainly be used by Democrats in the next few months as a way of tarnishing vulnerable Republicans, Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey report. Democrats have come to view highlighting GOP extremism as a central pillar of their 2022 strategy, echoing Republican tactics of using the Democratic fringes for example, the embrace of “socialism” by a few and calls to “defund the police” by some activists to stain the party’s brand.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), another controversial House freshman, said he doesn’t regret addressing the Trump rally before the riot. 

  • Just two hours before the attack, Cawthorn spoke to a crowd of Trump supporters and falsely claimed the election was fraudulent. “This crowd has some fight in it,” Cawthorn said. “The Democrats, with all the fraud they have done in this election, the Republicans hiding and not fighting, they are trying to silence your voice. Make no mistake about it, they do not want you to be heard.”
  • In an interview with Ozy Media, Cawthorn said he would offer no apologies for speaking at the rally or for urging the crowd to fight. “I don’t regret it, actually,” he said, adding that he didn’t repeat, specific, unfounded claims spread by Trump allies such as allegations that voting machines were rigged. “I couldn’t personally prove that,” he said. (Jaclyn Peiser)

Authorities are closing in on more people who may have participated in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

  • The FBI raided the home of Rachel Powell, a Pennsylvania mother of eight suspected of playing a role in the insurrection, CBS Local reports. Neighbors said Powell and her children are apparently hiding in an unknown location.
  • Meanwhile, a third North Texas real estate professional who flew on a private plane to D.C. was charged in connection to the riots, per the Dallas Morning News.
  • And the family member of a rioter filmed smashing windows in the Capitol identified him to the FBI, leading to his arrest last weekend, NBC News reports.

Several Democratic lawmakers gave emotional testimony during the Greene vote last night describing their experiences during the Capitol siege: 

Several Democratic lawmakers on Feb. 4 described their experiences during the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol in an effort to personalize the trauma. (The Washington Post)

Quote of the day

I’m here tonight to say to my brothers and sisters in Congress, and all around our country. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. For I had never understood, really understood, what privilege really means. It took a violent mob of insurrectionists and a lightning bolt moment in this very room. But now I know. Believe me, I really know,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) said during a House floor address. 

The first 100 days

The Senate approved a budget bill paving the way for Biden’s coronavirus relief plan. 

  • Harris cast the tiebreaking vote on the measure at about 5:30 a.m. following an all-night session during which senators plowed through dozen of amendments in a chaotic process known as a “vote-a-rama,” Erica Werner and Jeff Stein report. The House is expected to act on the Senate’s version of the budget bill within a day.
  • Now that the budget resolution is complete, Congress can turn in earnest to writing Biden’s relief proposal into law and then push it through the Senate, without GOP votes if necessary. That process will likely take weeks, with Democrats eyeing mid-March as the deadline for final passage.
  • GOP senators continue accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for their partisan push, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying “this is not the time for trillions more dollars to make perpetual lockdowns and economic decline a little more palatable.”

White House signaled a willingness to consider an executive action on student debt cancelation. 

  • Psaki said the administration is “reviewing” whether there are any steps Biden can take through executive action to cancel some portion of the $1.6 trillion in federal student loans owed by 43 million Americans, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports. This is the first time the administration has publicly signaled a willingness to consider executive action to forgive student loans.

Biden signed an executive order to rebuild the U.S. refugee resettlement program. 

  • “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged,” Biden said during his State Department speech, Abigail Hauslohner reports. The new policy will raise the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. But simply raising the cap is not enough to reopen the valve to actual refugee arrivals on U.S. soil, something Biden recognized in his speech. Funding and staff resources will probably need to be redirected within the Departments of State and Homeland Security to handle the bulk of refugee screening and processing, experts said.

Hot on the left

David Hogg, the co-founder of March for Our Lives, said he is launching a pillow company to compete against MyPillow, the company led by Trump ally Mike Lindell. Lindell is a fierce Trump ally who repeatedly parroted the former president’s baseless accusations of voter fraud. (NBC News)

Hot on the right

Former vice president Mike Pence is starting a podcast. Pence is returning to his radio roots and will launch a podcast in the following months hosted by the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization. He will join YAF as the group’s first Ronald Reagan presidential scholar and is expected to join the group’s campus lecture circuit. (Politico)

Firearm sales, visualized

This week in Washington

Biden will go to Wilmington, Del., later today. 

Trump’s second impeachment trial begins Tuesday. 

Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, will face the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday and the Budget Committee on Wednesday. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will Thursday vote on the nominations of Miguel Cardona, education secretary nominee, and Marty Walsh, labor secretary nominee.

In closing

Seth Meyers said the Trump presidency exposed massive systemic flaws in American democracy, but he did not create them and they will not go away with him:  

And here is the letter a Twitter-less Trump sent the Screen Actors Guild to announce his resignation: 

Trump faced expulsion from the guild because of his connection to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. 





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