Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stayed largely "offstage" since being confirmed, marking a curious break from traditions that have been honored by past presidential administrations, The Washington Post reports. Despite daily press briefings having been a fixture for the secretary of State since John Foster Dulles held the role in the 1950s, Tillerson has yet to do a televised Q&A. Additionally, Tillerson has been absent from meetings with world leaders including the Canadian and Japanese prime ministers as well as President Trump's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Many onlookers believe Tillerson's diminished role is not his fault — White House chaos and disarray could simply be leaving him with nothing to say. "Tillerson isn't being purposefully sidelined; he's just caught up in an administration with too many competing power centers and a president who's unwilling or unable to decide who he wants to play the lead role in implementing his foreign policy," said former diplomat Aaron David, who has worked with both Republican and Democratic presidents.
"I think it's hard to go out and talk to the press if you don't know what to say," added another diplomat who has served both parties, Richard Boucher.
But Tillerson's absence can sometimes mean that the American people are learning about the going-ons of the State Department through foreign governments' briefings to their press:
In some cases, governments of countries that are not democracies have been more transparent than the State Department. Phone conversations Tillerson had with the foreign ministers of Russia and Egypt as well as a phone conversation with Saudi Arabia's King Salman came to light only when the officials told their local press about them.
"It behooves the administration to give our side of any conversation," said Richard Stengel, the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2014 through 2016 in the Obama administration. "Having someone put points on the scoreboard and not taking the shot yourself seems peculiar to me." [The Washington Post]
The Washington Post notes that it is still early in Tillerson's tenure, but that previous transitions between administrations have managed to seamlessly usher in the new secretary of State. Read the full report at The Washington Post, here. Jeva Lange
President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, might have faced a blackmail attempt from a Ukrainian parliamentarian last summer, Politico reports. The purported evidence comes in the form of hacked communications from Manafort's daughter's iPhone, which includes a text from Ukrainian Serhiy Leshchenko demanding to reach Manafort and threatening the release of damaging information:
Attached to the text is a note to Paul Manafort referring to "bulletproof" evidence related to Manafort's financial arrangement with Ukraine's former president, the pro-Russian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, as well as an alleged 2012 meeting between Trump and a close Yanukovych associate named Serhiy Tulub.
"Considering all the facts and evidence that are in my possession, and before possible decision whether to pass this to [the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine] or FBI I would like to get your opinion on this and maybe your way to work things out that will persuade me to do otherwise," reads the note. It is signed "Sergii" — an alternative transliteration of Leshchenko's given name — and it urges Manafort to respond to an email address that reporters have used to reach Leshchenko. [Politico]
Leshchenko denied that the texts were from him, telling Politico: "I've never written any emails or messages to … Manafort or his family." Manafort denied brokering the meeting beween Trump and Tulub but confirmed the texts to his daughter are real and said that he had also received texts to his own phone from the same address. A White House official raised questions about the timeline, pointing out that Trump had not partnered with Manafort before the 2016 presidential campaign, muddling the allegation that he had brokered a 2012 meeting between Trump and Tulub.
The hacked text messages were published by a hacktivist collective apparently as an anti-Trump move, although the group "seems like randos, not the nation states we usually track," a cybersecurity analyst noted.
In August, The New York Times published documents from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine that indicated $12.7 million in cash payments was set aside for Manafort, with Leshchenko serving as a key source for bringing the documents to light. Manafort denied the documents are real: "I find it coincidental that I got these texts, and then he released these phony journals," Manafort said. Jeva Lange
On Wednesday night, the eight leading candidates for Democratic National Committee chair gathered for a CNN debate, days before Democratic officials and activists make their choice at the end of a three-day party meeting in Atlanta that begins Thursday. The candidates, led by former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), aimed most of their fire at President Trump, though they disagreed on how trenchantly to oppose him, as well as how to heal Democratic divisions lingering from the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary fight last year.
Trump's actions already "legitimately raise the question of impeachment," Ellison said, arguing that the president has already violated the Constitution. Perez said Trump "wants to turn the clock back, and the Democratic Party needs to take the fight to Donald Trump," leading with Democratic values and convictions. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Trump is a "computer virus in the American political system" that Democrats have to fight, "but we can't let him dominate our imagination, because it's our values and our candidates that matter." You can watch a 90-second recap of the debate below.
This is the first heavily contested race for DNC chair in recent history — the job usually involves raising money and supporting candidates behind the scenes. But Democrats have faced years of losses in Congress, state legislatures, and statehouses, and the party is without a clear leader now that Barack Obama is out of office. Perez is the early frontrunner, with about 205 of the 447 total votes, while Ellison has about 153 votes, independent Democratic strategists tell The Associated Press, though Ellison's spokesman said that count is "totally inaccurate" and Ellison is "incredibly confident" of his chances. Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, has 27 votes, while Buttigieg and Idaho Democratic Party chief Sally Boynton Brown have fewer than 20 votes combined, per AP's tally. Peter Weber
"I don't think I have to explain myself if I'm not going on TV if I'm out with four kids for three days looking at houses and schools," Conway told host Sean Hannity at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor. "A lot of my colleagues aren't trying to figure out how to be a mother of four kids, I assure you."
Conway has faced questions of credibility, with some TV programs banning her from their shows. While CNN reported Wednesday that White House officials were unhappy with Conway going "off message," and that consequently she'd been restricted in her TV appearance role, Conway explained: "About five percent of what I'm asked to do in this White House counselor role is TV. I think that's about right because [Trump is] the president now. He's his own best messenger."
Watch her defense below. Jeva Lange
With Congress on break, some Republicans have been going to their home districts to attend town hall meetings packed with angry and concerned constituents asking them about President Trump's ties to Russia, their plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and why Congress would ever finance Trump's $20 billion border wall, accompanied by chants of "Do your job!" Other Republicans have decided that avoiding the voters is a more prudent course of action, and on Wednesday, Stephen Colbert's Late Show briefly showed why — with a little help from Quentin Tarantino. Watch below. Peter Weber
On Thursday, Iraqi's militarized federal police launched an attack to seize Mosul's airport from the Islamic State while Iraqi special forces entered the sprawling Ghazlani military base nearby. The attack began with U.S.-led airstrikes overnight, followed by a coordinated assault on the airport, and Iraqi forces have captured the runway and are fighting scattered ISIS fire from inside airport buildings. "We can confirm that the Mosul airport militarily has fallen and it's a matter of short time to fully control it," said Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) spokesman Sabah al-Numan.
The airport and military base are on the southern side of Mosul, and the ISIS-controlled western side of the Tigris. Iraqi forces drove ISIS out of eastern Mosul in January, and five days ago began the campaign to retake the entire city, Iraq's second-largest. Like the bridges across the Tigris, the airport runway has been destroyed, but occupying the land and Ghazlani base will help Iraqi forces control southern routes to the western part of the city, says BBC Middle East correspondent Quentin Sommerville. You can watch Sommerville's report from the airport below. Peter Weber
— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervillebbc) February 23, 2017
The New York Police Department says it is costing New York City less to protect first lady Melania Trump and Barron, her son, than originally estimated. In a letter to New York's congressional delegation dated Tuesday, New York Police Commissioner James O'Neill said that the NYPD spent only $24 million on security for President Trump, his family, and Trump Tower between Election Day in November and Inauguration Day in late January, not the $35 million the department had anticipated.
The daily costs "to protect the first lady and her son while they reside in Trump Tower" now range from $127,000 to $146,000, O'Neill said, while the NYPD expects to spend "an average daily rate of $308,000" when President Trump is in town. That means New York will spend some $50 million a year protecting Melania and Barron Trump, if they stay in the city after this school year, The New York Times notes, or $60 million if the president begins returning home on weekends, rather than flying down to Florida. The New York members of Congress are trying to get federal reimbursement for the NYPD's expenses; so far, New York City has received about $7 million.