POLITICO Playbook: Biden in Europe, WMD fears at center stage

BREAKING OVERNIGHT: Japan’s Defense Ministry told reporters that North Korea has fired a “new type of ICBM,” that landed less than 200 miles from the tip of Japan. CNN reports it’s the first long-range weapons test from North Korea since 2017.

White House press secretary JEN PSAKI released a statement condemning the launch: “This launch is a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region. This action demonstrates that the DPRK continues to prioritize its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs over the well-being of its people.” Full statement

In Washington, KETANJI BROWN JACKSON, President JOE BIDEN’s nominee to the Supreme Court, is one step closer to being confirmed after a successful week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he once chaired for eight years. (More on that in a moment.)

In Brussels, Biden is playing the role of leader of the free world — a once-common term for American presidents that started to seem anachronistic — at a trio of summits that were reportedly his brainchild.

Already this morning, Biden met with NATO Secretary General JENS STOLTENBERG and is attending a NATO summit meeting.

Later this morning, Biden will attend the G-7 meeting, where sanctions will be the main topic of discussion.

In the afternoon, Biden will attend a European Council Summit. Biden will deliver remarks at all three summits and then hold a press conference to wrap up the day.

NATO PREVIEW — The big news at the morning NATO confab, announced Wednesday by Stoltenberg, is threefold: (1) NATO is doubling its military footprint in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia to counter the threat from Russia; (2) Biden and NATO leaders will increase pressure on China to condemn the Russian invasion; (3) NATO will take additional steps to aid Ukraine with “cybersecurity assistance” and “equipment to help Ukraine protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.”

It’s that third issue that has seized everyone’s attention, as WMDs are now a serious focus of the summit. Stoltenberg repeatedly called on Russia to stop its “nuclear sabre-rattling,” and warned that “the spread of chemical or biological agents used in Ukraine may have dire consequences also for the population living in NATO Allied countries in Europe.”

Back home, the WaPo, NYT and POLITICO have sobering pieces about the risks of a nuclear conflict:

— “Repeated attempts by the U.S.’s top defense and military leaders to speak with their Russian counterparts have been rejected by Moscow for the last month, leaving the world’s two largest nuclear powers in the dark about explanations for military movements and raising fears of a major miscalculation or battlefield accident,” WaPo’s John Hudson reports.

“Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Defense SecretaryLLOYD AUSTIN and Gen. MARK A. MILLEY, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have tried to set up phone calls with Defense Minister SERGEI SHOIGU and Gen. VALERY GERASIMOV but the Russians ‘have so far declined to engage.’”

— Behind the scenes, the Biden administration has “assembled a team of national security officials to sketch out scenarios of how the U.S. and its allies should respond if Putin unleashes his stockpiles of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The Tiger Team, as the group is known, is also examining responses if Mr. Putin reaches into NATO territory to attack convoys bringing weapons and aid to Ukraine,” officials tell NYT’s David Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and Julian Barnes.

— As the war in Ukraine drags on, “and Russia’s conventional forces suffer surprisingly heavy losses while its economy reels, the prospect that Putin might resort to using weapons of mass destruction is increasing,” reports our own Bryan Bender. “With limited contact between the Kremlin and Western capitals, the risk that Moscow’s intentions could be misread with catastrophic consequences will only grow more acute, according to numerous specialists. …

“Further complicating the task of U.S. and allied commanders to decipher Russian intentions, said [TIM MORRISON, a former Trump White House nuclear policy adviser who is now a researcher at the Hudson Institute,] is the fact that so many Russian battlefield systems are also designed to unleash both conventional and nuclear or chemical warheads. In other words, it could be exceedingly difficult to know when the Russian military has decided to pursue a nuclear option.

Finally, ahead of today’s summit meeting, per AP’s Nebi Qena and Cara Anna, NATO released an estimate “that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in four weeks of war in Ukraine. … By way of comparison, Russia lost about 15,000 troops over 10 years in Afghanistan.”

SANCTIONS SHOWDOWN — Our colleagues Suzanne Lynch and Jakob Hanke Vela, who write Brussels Playbook, have more on the fraught sanctions debate that Biden is stepping into:

Ahead of his visit, the Biden administration said the U.S. and EU would escalate sanctions against Russia today. (Senior U.S. official KAREN DONFRIED told a POLITICO event that she expected the U.S. to announce new sanctions.) Some EU diplomats (unsurprisingly, from countries opposed to going further) played down the possibility of any specifics at tonight’s meeting. But council officials said a robust discussion is expected, which could form the basis of a further package of sanctions. “Leaders might decide after the discussion that they need to go further … everything is on the table, everything is being considered,” said a senior official, but underlined the conflicting views.

— The calculation: As one EU diplomat explained, the calculation behind the sanctions decision is two-fold. Firstly, any sanctions have to be sustainable (i.e. the EU can’t decide something and then drop it a few weeks later). Secondly, the basic principle of sanction policy is that the actions should be more damaging to the other side — a prospect that would not be the case at least economically, should, for example, thousands of Europeans lose their jobs.

— Looking at options: One possibility that has been floated is consideration of temporary sanctions on some energy imports though countries like Germany remain staunchly opposed, as evidenced by German Chancellor OLAF SCHOLZ’s speech in the Bundestag on the eve of the summit.

Good Thursday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

JACKSON MAKES IT THROUGH THE HARD PART — After two long days of questioning packed with hours of parrying accusations that she has been too lenient in her sentencing and too friendly to Gitmo detainees, Jackson made it through the hard part.

Get up to speed: 5 takeaways from Jackson hearing, by Josh Gerstein and Marianne LeVine

Notable moments from Day Three:

— Graham vs. Jackson: Sen. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.) pressed Jackson about her sentencing of people convicted of possessing child pornography, repeatedly interrupting her response. “After the questioning, Sen. PATRICK LEAHY (D-Vt.) accused Mr. Graham of badgering the nominee and … called the remarks ‘beyond the pale,’” per WSJ. A video clip from Graham’s exchange with Jackson

— Hawley vs. Jackson: Sen. JOSH HAWLEY (R-Mo.) pressed her in detail about several child porn cases and asked Jackson if she regretted the sentences she’d handed out. She retorted: “What I regret is that in a hearing about my qualifications to be a justice on the Supreme Court, we have spent a lot of time focusing on this small subset of my sentences.” Related: These Trump judges failed Hawley’s sentencing test for Jackson

— A bit of news: “Jackson says she would recuse herself from Harvard affirmative action case,” via WaPo 

— Booker moved Jackson to tears. After hours of intense and adversarial questioning, Sen. CORY BOOKER (D-N.J.) sought to give Jackson — as CNN’s Abby Phillip observed — both a break and a bit of a pep talk, reminding the room of the historic nature of the nomination.

“I’m not letting anybody in the Senate steal my joy,” Booker said as he addressed Jackson, the first Black woman to be nominated for the Supreme Court. “You have earned this spot; you are worthy; you are a great American. … You are here because of that kind of love. And nobody is taking this away from you.” The full clip, via C-SPAN on Twitter WSJ with moreFull highlight video of Day Three 

Next up:

Today, the hearings will continue, with outsiders speaking to her credentials, including Representatives from the American Bar Association.

The committee will meet on Monday, March 28, likely setting up an April 4 vote to advance her nomination to the full floor. Technically, Republicans can try to boycott this markup of her nomination in committee, but Ranking Member CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-Iowa) has indicated that he’s not interested in doing that.

From there, Jackson is set for a floor vote. How many Republicans will she get? CNN’s Manu Raju has the breakdown on how close the vote will be, writing that “it’s almost certain that Jackson … won’t be able to win more than a few Republican votes, meaning it could be one of the closest confirmation votes in U.S. history.”

BIDEN’S THURSDAY (all times Eastern):

— 9:10 a.m.: Biden will participate in a family photo with G-7 leaders.

— 9:15 a.m.: Biden will participate in a G-7 meeting, where he will deliver remarks.

— 11:20 a.m.: Biden will meet European Council President CHARLES MICHEL for a bilateral meeting.

— 12 p.m.: Biden will participate in a European Council summit, where he will deliver remarks.

— 3 p.m.: The president will hold a news conference.

VP KAMALA HARRIS’ THURSDAY: The vice president will deliver virtual remarks at the one-year commemoration of an executive order promoting access to voting.

THE SENATE is in. The Judiciary Committee will continue its confirmation hearings on Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination at 9 a.m., with outside witnesses scheduled to testify.

THE HOUSE is out.



MANHATTAN PROSECUTOR PLANNED TO CHARGE TRUMP — MARK POMERANTZ, “one of the senior Manhattan prosecutors who investigated DONALD J. TRUMP believed that the former president was ‘guilty of numerous felony violations’ and that it was ‘a grave failure of justice’ not to hold him accountable, according to a copy of his resignation letter,” report NYT’s William Rashbaum, Ben Protess and Jonah Bromwich.

— Pomerantz and CAREY DUNNE, another senior prosecutor on the case, resigned last month after Manhattan’s new district attorney, ALVIN BRAGG, “abruptly stopped pursuing an indictment” of Trump.

“‘The team that has been investigating Mr. Trump harbors no doubt about whether he committed crimes — he did,’ Mr. Pomerantz wrote. Mr. Pomerantz and Mr. Dunne planned to charge Mr. Trump with falsifying business records, specifically his annual financial statements — a felony in New York State.” The letter of resignation


DEMS’ DILEMMA — Democrats once expected a thriving post-Covid economy to be their big strength heading into the midterms. Instead, the path to Election Day is littered with landmines for a party struggling to prevent a wipeout at the ballot box. “Incumbent parties usually lose House and Senate seats in off-year elections, but turning these attitudes around could be the difference between Democrats taking average losses this fall or getting punched out like they did in 1994,” Ben White reports. “And administration officials are increasingly concerned about the economy as a heavy drag in the midterms, according to several allies.”

HOUSE GOP RALLIES AGAINST CHENEY — We’ve never seen anything — anything — like this on Capitol Hill: Our Alex Isenstadt reports that “more than 100 House Republicans have signed on to host a fundraiser for HARRIET HAGEMAN, who is waging a primary challenge” to oust Rep. LIZ CHENEY (R-Wyo.) from her own seat. That’s roughly half of the entire House GOP.

“The list of hosts includes House Minority Leader KEVIN MCCARTHY and Rep. ELISE STEFANIK of New York, who succeeded Cheney as chair of the House GOP conference last May. The event is slated to be held March 30 at the home of Republican fundraiser JEFF MILLER, a longtime McCarthy adviser.”

MO BROOKS, MO’ PROBLEMS — A day after President DONALD TRUMP un-endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama’s GOP Senate primary, the fireworks between the two continue to explode.

— First, Brooks told our Kyle Cheney that Trump spoke to him last fall about rescinding the 2020 election results. Here’s Kyle: “That matters because if the timing and substance of Brooks’ claims are accurate, it suggests Trump has not just lodged false complaints about his loss to President Joe Biden, but has actively sought to solicit help to overturn them deep into the Biden presidency.”

— Then, Brooks released a statement confirming what Kyle reported: “President Trump asked me to rescind the 2020 elections, immediately remove Joe Biden from the White House, immediately put President Trump back in the White House, and hold a new special election for the presidency. As a lawyer, I’ve repeatedly advised President Trump that January 6 was the final election contest verdict and neither the U.S. Constitution nor the U.S. Code permit what President Trump asks. Period.”

“I’ve told President Trump the truth knowing full well that it might cause President Trump to rescind his endorsement,” Brooks said. (Note to Trump: When you’ve lost Mo Brooks… we’re just sayin’!)

How’s this for cold?: “Brooks learned he had lost Trump’s support after being sent a reporter’s tweet,” report Natalie Allison and Meridith McGraw.

A related big-picture read:“Why Trump Is Losing His Grip On The GOP,” by John F. Harris: Trump’s un-endorsement of Brooks “put an especially bright light on a trend years in the making: Trump has moved from being the beneficiary of America’s instinctual suspicion that most politicians are phonies who don’t really believe a thing they say, to being the enforcer against politicians who are insufficiently phony in professing blind devotion to him. …

“One suspects that Trump himself does not realize how far he has drifted from the original source of his appeal as someone who is not connected to a reigning power structure and may lie and even cheat but does not traffic in the usual political B.S. Now Trump is trying to create his own power structure. And, even if one accepts that in his self-delusion Trump really does believe the election was somehow rigged against him, he also says lots of other things that he self-evidently doesn’t believe. … Trump makes so much noise, and instills so much fear in Republican politicians, that it can be hard to see the deterioration that is taking place in his political foundation.” Related: Trump endorsements slow and prompt a scramble by candidates, advisers, WaPo


UNDER THE RADAR: ESHOO, GOWDY DEFEND FORTENBERRY — It’s not often that lawmakers testify in the trials of other lawmakers. But yesterday, we saw two — one current, one former; one Democrat, one Republican — do just that on behalf of Rep. JEFF FORTENBERRY (R-Neb.), who’s been charged with lying to the FBI over an illegal $30,000 campaign donation. The AP has more:

— Rep. ANNA ESHOO (D-Calif.) “said she got to know … Fortenberry when they worked together on issues pertaining to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. ‘I think he brings honor to what he does,’ Eshoo said. ‘He’s honest… I can’t say that about all members of Congress.’”

— Former Rep. TREY GOWDY (R-S.C.), “who initially represented Fortenberry, testified that Fortenberry tried to help federal prosecutors in their investigation.”


AIRLINES WANT END TO MASK MANDATE — The CEOs of American Airlines, United, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue, signed a letter urging Biden “to end a federal mask mandate on airplanes and international pre-departure testing requirements.” More details from Reuters’ David Shepardson

A SECOND BOOSTER SHOT? — The Biden administration is considering authorizing “a second Covid-19 booster shot for older Americans within weeks, amid rising concern over a potential resurgence of cases … as a result of the spread of the Omicron subvariant, BA.2,” our Adam Cancryn and Erin Banco report.

IN MEMORIAM — “Madeleine Albright, first female secretary of State, dies at 84,” by David Cohen: “Madeleine Albright, a refugee from both Nazi Germany and Soviet communism who became the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of State, died on Wednesday. She was 84. A statement from her family said the cause was cancer, and that she was surrounded by friends and family. The statement recounted Albright’s journey to public office, in which she ‘rose to the heights of American policy-making.’ She was a ‘tireless champion of democracy and human rights,’ her family said.”

Ted Cruz was caught searching Twitter for mentions of his own name during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday. (h/t L.A. Times photog Kent Nishimura)

Katie Arrington twice texted Mick Mulvaney in the last week to call him a “piece of shit” after he told NBC News that she was “not the best candidate by any stretch of the imagination,” reports The State’s ​​Caitlin Byrd. (Mulvaney backs Nancy Mace in the GOP primary for South Carolina’s first district; Donald Trump backs Arrington.)

Mitt Romney met singer Ritt Momney.

The White House asked Mehmet Oz and Herschel Walkerto resign from the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. On Twitter, Oz said he would not step down.

MacKenzie Scott continued her donation spree, giving $275 million to Planned Parenthood — the largest gift from a single donor in the group’s history, per Reuters — and $10 million to Blue Star Families.

SPOTTED: Al Gore dining at Oyster Oyster on Wednesday evening. A tipster told Playbook that topics of conversation included QAnon, the movie “House of Gucci,” climate change, getting “red-pilled,” Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing and Gore’s desire for “Putin’s poodle” to catch on as a nickname for Tucker Carlson.

BIG POLITICO NEWS — Dafna Linzer is joining POLITICO as the new executive editor. She previously was managing editor for politics at NBC News and MSNBC. The newsroom memo

MEDIA MOVES — Drew Holden is joining the Washington Free Beacon to cover media. He previously was a freelance commentary writer. The announcement Alex Butcher-Nesbitt is joining NBC as a senior comms manager focused on “Meet the Press.” He previously led the media relations team at Proof Strategies.

TRANSITIONS — Sherise Bright is joining the Human Rights Campaign as senior VP of comms and marketing. She previously was chief comms officer at Lambda Legal.

ENGAGED — Carlos Paz Jr., senior comms adviser for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Abigail Diaz, government customer adviser for Amazon Business, recently got engaged. After several quick encounters in their native city of Houston, they finally hit it off at Carlos’ best friend’s birthday dinner on a Brooklyn rooftop. The couple started as friends, then embarked on a four-year, long-distance, Houston-D.C. relationship. Pic Another pic

WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Judy Stecker, a senior VP at Hill + Knowlton, and Courtney Stecker, a consultant with Kearney & Company, welcomed Read Stecker on Wednesday. He came in at 8 lbs, 14 oz and 22 inches. Pic Another pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) … Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) … Su-Lin NicholsMatt Gorman of Targeted Victory … Ted Chiodo … CNN’s Donie O’SullivanEugene KangChandler Goule of the National Wheat Growers Association … Rod O’Connor Evan Feinberg of Stand Together … Robert Hoffman … NBC’s Dareh GregorianMark SpenglerMolly Wilkinson of American Airlines … Sarah Gilmore of Airlines for America … Patrick HallahanVu Ritchie of Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) office … former Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) … Aharon Friedman … Navy JAG Hannah ShermanStaci Maiers … Bloomberg’s Aaron RutkoffJeanette Manfra Kirami Bah of New Heights Communications … Fred Menachem of ThriveDx (5-0) … Bob Crowe (75)

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