February 26, 2021

After blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration is announcing new sanctions against Saudi operatives, but not against the crown prince himself.

The U.S. on Friday declassified an intelligence report concluding that Mohammed bin Salman "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi." Shortly after the report's release, Politico's Natasha Bertrand reported the U.S. Treasury Department is announcing new sanctions against General Ahmed al-Asiri, former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, as well as the crown prince's personal protective detail, over their alleged roles in the Washington Post journalist's killing.

However, according to Bertrand, "Crown Prince MBS will NOT be sanctioned," and Politico quotes a senior administration official as saying that the "aim is recalibration, not a rupture, because of the important interests that we do share" with Saudi Arabia. Similarly, The New York Times reports that President Biden "has decided that the price of directly penalizing" the crown prince "is too high" and that he's "simply too important to American interests to punish."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday did, however, also announce a new "Khashoggi Ban" policy, under which the State Department will impose visa restrictions on individuals "believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities" while "acting on behalf of a foreign government." Blinken also said the U.S. is now imposing visa restrictions against 76 Saudi individuals under this policy.

But a lack of direct punishment for the crown prince is likely to draw criticism, Politico's Nahal Toosi noted. "For activists, the WHOLE POINT was to punish MBS," Toosi said. "Will Biden's other new sanctions/policies appease them? Doubt it." And the Times writes that "in the end, Mr. Biden came to essentially the same place on punishing the young and impetuous crown prince as did Mr. Trump." Brendan Morrow

6:20 a.m.

President Biden isn't exactly coated in political Teflon, but he's "well regarded by voters" and "even Donald Trump, the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of electoral politics, has had troubles landing a punch," Sam Stein writes at Tuesday's Politico Nightly. "His latest nickname for the president — 'Saintly Joe Biden' — was debuted to donors over the weekend. It was meant as derisive … we think."

But the bigger concern for the Republican Party, and a future Trump restoration campaign, is the lack of any real "grassroots movement emerging to confront the White House," Stein reports, noting that the Tea Party was already in full swing at this point in Barack Obama's presidency. "Biden’s perceived benignness — the difficulty in actually getting people to despise the guy" — is one reason, he argues, but the other big factor is Trump himself.

Proto-Tea Partier former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and other Republicans told Politico that "a movement like the Tea Party emerges when people galvanize around ideas. When they galvanize around an individual, they're really just waiting for that individual to act or guide them. Put another way: While the Tea Party exploited a GOP leadership vacuum in 2009, there is a need for a vacuum in 2021." And "that may very well be the gift that Trump has given Biden," Stein said. "As the former president sits in Mar-a-Lago, plotting his next move, he has brought stasis to the Republican Party." Read more at Politico. Peter Weber

5:27 a.m.

"In the last few months, we've gotten all sorts of vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Montero — but for at least a little while, it looks like there's gonna be one less," Trevor Noah said on Tuesday's Daily Show. "The FDA has temporarily halted the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while they look into six cases of rare blood clots in people who got that vaccine." And sure, "you don't want the vaccine for one disease to give you another disease," he said, but "you're more likely to get struck by lightning 10 times" than get blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Noah listed dangerous symptoms of COVID-19, including, yes, blood clots.

The odds of getting blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson shot is "less than one in a million," Stephen Colbert said at The Late Show. "To put that in perspective, it's slightly better odds than you have of getting to visit Willy Wonka's Fantabulous Chocolate Factory — which, for the record, kills or maims four out of the five children who set foot inside." He also caught up on the latest Matt Gaetz troubles — the only "feel-good story on the news horizon," he deadpanned — and tried to dissuade Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson from running for president.

The FDA and CDC are only "recommending a 'pause'" in Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, though "anyone who's ever been dumped was like 'Oh boy, we know what pause means,'" Jimmy Fallon joked on The Tonight Show. "Johnson & Johnson is owned by the same family who owns the New York Jets, so don't think of this as a pause, think of it more like a 50-year rebuild. And today if you had a Johnson & Johnson appointment in New York, they gave out Pfizer instead. Yeah, it's like going to a restaurant and hearing, 'We're out of Coke, is Dom Pérignon okay?'"

"I blame the second Johnson — he never graduated high school," Jimmy Kimmel said on Kimmel Live. "But now the White House is scrambling to restore confidence in vaccines. Public trust is already a major obstacle to achieving herd immunity, so what does this setback mean?" Well, "six out of 7 million means getting the vaccine is safer than not getting the vaccine," he said. "You got it? Then get it."

Well, Lin-Manuel Miranda is still going to get his shot, The Late Show sang.

Late Night's Seth Meyers regretted not making that same Hamilton joke. Peter Weber

3:20 a.m.

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday that the gap between federal taxes owed and paid "could approach and possibly exceed $1 trillion per year," more than double the official estimate of $441 billion. IRS research shows that $175 billion of those underpayments come from the wealthiest Americans, Rettig said, and other factors include the rise in untaxed cryptocurrencies, income from foreign sources, and illegal income.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the $1 trillion tax gap "a jaw-dropping figure" and asked Rettig how the IRS could fit that. Rettig suggested better reporting of income from third parties, more electronic tax return filing, more regulation of tax return preparers, and a larger enforcement budget. After years of budget cuts, the IRS is "outgunned" by tax cheats and dodgers, he said, endorsing a proposal to take agency funding out of the discretionary stream subject to congressional whimsy and politics. President Biden has proposed raising the IRS budget by 10.4 percent, mostly to boost enforcement.

Rettig also said that while it will be a challenge and require extra hiring, the IRS expects to be ready to start making monthly payments of $250 to $300 per child by July 1, as set out in Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law. The IRS is "not historically" a benefits agency, he said, but it "will be working hard to deliver this program quickly and efficiently." The IRS was also responsible for sending out three rounds of COVID-19 stimulus checks over the past year. The Week Staff

2:03 a.m.

Officially, Jessie Hamilton was a cook at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house at Louisiana State University, but she was also a therapist, a cheerleader, and a friend.

Starting in 1982, Hamilton worked at the Phi Gamma Delta (also known as Fiji) house for 14 years. She made about 100 brothers delicious breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, but was also available to lend an ear, offering advice on everything from relationships to coursework.

"I was always there to talk things through with them," she told The Washington Post. "They'd come in the kitchen and sit on top of the counter and tell me their problems." Fiji brother Andrew Fusaiotti graduated in the late 1980s, but can still remember his talks with Hamilton. "She was truly like a mother to us," he told the Post. "She treated us like we were her own kids. She was always looking out for us."

A sharecropper's daughter, Hamilton started working at 14, and has had at least two jobs at a time ever since. She's kept in touch with several of the brothers, and they decided for her 74th birthday this month, they were going to give her the gift of retirement. Fusaiotti found out from Hamilton's children that she needed $45,000 to pay off her mortgage, so he started a fundraiser. More than 90 brothers from across the country donated a total of $51,764.

On April 3, a dozen vaccinated brothers surprised Hamilton outside of her Baton Rouge home, and after singing "Happy Birthday," they gave her two checks — one to pay off the mortgage, with the rest to spend on whatever Hamilton wants. "If I hadn't been sitting, I would have fell down," she told the Post. Hamilton has put in notice at her two jobs, and plans to spend part of her retirement visiting with the Fiji brothers. "They were my kids," she said. "They still are." Catherine Garcia

1:56 a.m.

If Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector for Florida's Seminole County, has been helping federal investigators determine whether Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) had sex with a 17-year-old girl and paid for sex with cash and gifts — as reported Tuesday night by The New York Times and The Washington Post — that's probably bad news for Gaetz. But the feds have also been trying to get testimony from the former 17-year-old, who appears to tie together several of the Gaetz threads, Politico reports.

The woman, who Politico isn't identifying because she may be the victim of a sex crime, not only had a sexual relationship with Greenberg and possibly Gaetz between May and November 2017, according to federal authorities. She also went on a September 2018 trip to the Bahamas with Gaetz, hand surgeon and Gaetz donor Jason Pirozzolo, GOP state legislator Halsey Beshears, and four other young women, Politico reports. Greenberg was not invited on that trip, three people told Politico, "because of a conflict with Pirozzolo's girlfriend."

The unidentified woman had turned 18 a few months before the Bahamas trip, and nobody in their party engaged in prostitution, one of the other women told Politico. But, she and others sources added, three of the women on Beshears' private jets looked so young, U.S. Customs briefly stopped and questioned them when they landed in Florida. Gaetz, who flew commercial to the Bahamas, has denied having sex with a 17-year-old or paying for sex.

The woman could testify if that's true — her age at the time is a crucial detail in the federal investigation — along with giving the feds other information on the Bahamas trip. Three Gaetz friends told Politico the congressman has said he waited until the woman was 18 to have sex with her. If Gaetz and his friends traded drugs or cash for sex, that could be a crime in itself, regardless of whether the sex was with underage girls, Politico says.

Federal investigators executed a search warrant this winter and seized Gaetz's phone and the phone of a former girlfriend, Politico reports. Beshears abruptly resigned as Florida's top business regulator in January, Pirozzolo has told clients his office is closed "due to a family emergency," and before reportedly flipping on Gaetz, Greenberg in July 2020 tried to get him to ask then-President Donald Trump for a pardon, Politico reports. Peter Weber

12:43 a.m.

The Capitol Police inspector general has issued a blistering report criticizing the agency's response to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, writing that leaders received ample warning that extremist supporters of former President Donald Trump posed a threat to law enforcement and civilians, but were still not prepared to handle the crowd, The New York Times reports.

The report from Inspector General Michael A. Bolton was issued Tuesday, and has been reviewed by the Times. On Jan. 6, a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, following a "Stop the Steal" rally that claimed the election had been rigged. Bolton writes in the report that three days earlier, a Capitol Police intelligence assessment revealed that a map of the Capitol complex's tunnel system had been shared on pro-Trump message boards. Further, the Jan. 3 assessment warned, "Congress itself is the target on the 6th. Stop the Steal's propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike."

Despite this cautionary message, when Capitol Police on Jan. 5 put together a plan on how to handle the protest, they wrote there were "no specific known threats related to the joint session of Congress."

Bolton also found that agency leaders told the Civil Disturbance Unit not to use stun grenades and other powerful crowd-control tools to quell the Jan. 6 assault. Officers who were at the Capitol during the attack told Bolton these instruments could have helped them "push back the rioters," the Times reports. Additionally, some officers wielded riot shields that "shattered upon impact" because they had been kept in a trailer that was not climate-controlled. Extra shields were kept on a bus that was locked, leaving officers unable to access them.

Nearly 140 law enforcement officers were injured during the assault, with Officer Brian Sicknick collapsing during the riot and later dying. In the report, Bolton determined that the Capitol Police's internal dysfunction led to an intelligence and communication breakdown, the Times reports, and there needs to be "guidance that clearly documents channels for efficiently and effectively disseminating intelligence information to all of its personnel." On Thursday, Bolton will testify in front of the House Administration Committee. Catherine Garcia

April 13, 2021

The White House said Tuesday night that President Biden has accepted an invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to address a joint session of Congress on April 28, the night before his 100th day in office. Pelosi extended the invitation earlier Tuesday, suggesting Biden could "share your vision for addressing the challenges and opportunities of this historic moment."

It isn't clear yet how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the speech, traditionally attended by all members of the House and Senate, plus Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members. The House, which will host the address in its chamber, has enacted social distancing measures and requires everyone to wear a mask, and the visitor gallery, usually full during such speeches, has been closed to the public.

Biden is delivering his inaugural address to Congress later in his first year than his predecessors Donald Trump and Barack Obama did. Although the April 28 event will resemble a State of the Union address, presidents don't deliver that speech until their second year in office. Peter Weber

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