POLITICO Playbook: The Democratic primary just got real

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DRIVING THE DAY

THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY is set to enter a new phase tonight, 20 days before the first caucus, with tenuous non-aggression pacts breaking down and the president sharpening his attacks and focus on a field that’s finally getting pared down to its top tier.

THE CNN/DES MOINES REGISTER DEBATE tonight in Des Moines -- moderated by Wolf Blitzer, Abby Phillip and Brianne Pfannenstiel -- happens with this backdrop: ELIZABETH WARREN and BERNIE SANDERS are warring, with the Massachusetts senator’s allies and aides seemingly leaking damaging information about her colleague from Vermont and their supporters battling over it on Twitter; two prominent black leaders, Sens. CORY BOOKER and KAMALA HARRIS, are out of the field; and MIKE BLOOMBERG has turned on a gusher of money, looming large on the sidelines and attracting the president’s ire and attention.

THAT’S NOT TO MENTION JOE BIDEN versus the field. The rest of the candidates are trying to gingerly make the case that the former VP is out of step with the party’s voters and of a different generation of Democratic leaders. BIDEN, meanwhile, has proved a durable frontrunner who has run his own race and largely ignored most of the fireworks around him.

IT COULD BE THE MOST momentous debate yet.

THE INTERNECINE WAR between SANDERS and WARREN is hitting an absolute fever pitch, sparked by this CNN report by MJ LEE, which had Sanders telling Warren a woman could not win. SANDERS denies it, but WARREN is on the record saying it’s true. This seems certain to play a major role in tonight’s tilt.

MEANWHILE, as SANDERS and WARREN eat at each other, a super PAC that supports BIDEN is going up on the air in Iowa with an ad touting the former VP’s experience on the world stage. “We need somebody in the Oval Office who understands the gravity and the consequences of their decisions,” the ad -- paid for by Unite the Country -- intones. The 32-second spot Marc Caputo on the ad David Siders previews the debate

BACK ON CAPITOL HILL … MUST READ … BURGESS EVERETT and JOHN BRESNAHAN: “Republicans face reckoning on impeachment witnesses”: “The GOP has tried to stay focused on its game plan to shut down Democratic hopes of locking in witnesses at the outset of the trial, but it’s become increasingly clear the party will face an internal reckoning during the trial as it defends its Senate majority and faces a president who demands complete loyalty.

“Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has sent GOP leaders a message that they can’t assume she will try to move through the trial as quickly as possible and ignore the possibility of hearing new evidence. And she’s not alone.

“Take Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of the year. He says he might vote to hear witnesses ‘if I needed to. Or I might not. Or I might.’ ‘My view is we should hear the case, ask our questions and then have a vote on whether we need to hear additional witnesses or call for additional documents,’ said Alexander. ‘It’s important to have a vote on whether we have witnesses or not.’” POLITICO

TO BE CLEAR ... THE SENATE GOP LEADERSHIP line on witnesses has softened in recent days. They clearly don't want to be boxed in, and want to see how the process goes and how members feel in a few weeks.

SENATE REPUBLICANS TO TRUMP: SHUSH … via Burgess and Bres: “‘I would vote against a motion to dismiss immediately. Absolutely,’ Sen. COLLINS says … Sen. MITT ROMNEY: “‘I will not be supporting a motion to dismiss’ … Says the Ukraine allegations are ‘serious and deserve to be given consideration’ and that Trump team needs to make its case too.”

… via NBC’s Frank Thorp: “Sen [Roy] BLUNT: ‘I think our members are generally not interested in a motion to dismiss. The argument for a motion to dismiss was there, was one in Clinton rules. But I think I’m safe in saying there’s almost no interest in a motion to dismiss.’”

-- WAPO’S SEUNG MIN KIM, MIKE DEBONIS and ELISE VIEBECK put it all together: “Top Senate Republicans reject Trump’s renewed call for immediate dismissal of impeachment charges”

HAPPENING TODAY … HOUSE DEMOCRATS have their weekly caucus meeting at 9 this morning, in which they are expected to discuss sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate. We expect a vote in the next two days, and an announcement of managers soon.

BIG NYT SCOOP … “Russians Hacked Ukrainian Gas Company at Center of Impeachment,” by Nicole Perlroth and Matthew Rosenberg: “With President Trump facing an impeachment trial over his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, Russian military hackers have been boring into the Ukrainian gas company at the center of the affair, according to security experts.

“The hacking attempts against Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served, began in early November, as talk of the Bidens, Ukraine and impeachment was dominating the news in the United States.

“It is not yet clear what the hackers found, or precisely what they were searching for. But the experts say the timing and scale of the attacks suggest that the Russians could be searching for potentially embarrassing material on the Bidens — the same kind of information that Mr. Trump wanted from Ukraine when he pressed for an investigation of the Bidens and Burisma, setting off a chain of events that led to his impeachment.” NYT

-- EVERY NEWS OUTLET will now have to decide: If we get information about the Bidens and Burisma obtained by Russian hackers, do we publish, and under what circumstances and with what guardrails?

TRUMP’S DEFENSE PLAN, via DARREN SAMUELSOHN: “In the Senate, White House counsel Pat Cipollone will deliver opening arguments and take the lead. He’ll be flanked by two of his deputies, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin … Then there’s Jay Sekulow, the longest-serving member of the president’s personal legal team, who is expected to make his own trial presentation delving into the Ukraine scandal … Outside the chamber, [Rudy] Giuliani will remain his omnipresent self, whether Trump’s in-house legal team likes it or not.”

Good Tuesday morning.

SPOTTED: Chris Christie on the same Washington-bound Amtrak train Monday as Bridget Anne Kelly, his former deputy COS who sent the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email. Kelly and her Bridgegate co-defendant, Bill Baroni, are set to argue their case before the Supreme Court today. Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, left the train hand in hand.

NOTABLE QUOTABLE … JASON GREENBLATT SPEAKS … The former Trump Middle East peace envoy gave an interview to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. QUESTION: “Are you hopeful about peace between Israel and the Palestinians?”

GREENBLATT: “I think they have a lot of very tough issues to work out. I don’t know if the two sides will come to agreement on those tough issues. I don’t think anybody can be sure. These are complex issues that the two sides are extraordinarily divided on, and even within the two societies, so I don’t think anybody can sit here and say peace can be achieved. But I think it would be a shame if we didn’t continue to try desperately.” Full Q&A

WHAT CONGRESS? … WAPO’S NICK MIROFF: “Trump planning to divert additional $7.2 billion in Pentagon funds for border wall”: “President Trump is preparing to divert an additional $7.2 billion in Pentagon funding for border wall construction this year, five times what Congress authorized him to spend on the project in the 2020 budget, according to internal planning figures obtained by The Washington Post.

“The Pentagon funds would be extracted, for the second year in a row, from military construction projects and counternarcotics funding. According to the plans, the funding would give the government enough money to complete about 885 miles of new fencing by spring 2022, far more than the 509 miles the administration has slated for the U.S. border with Mexico.” WaPo

-- WAPO’S KEVIN SEIFF in Guatemala City: “The U.S. is putting asylum seekers on planes to Guatemala — often without telling them where they’re going”

2020 WATCH … CHRIS CADELAGO and SALLY GOLDENBERG: “Bloomberg’s campaign snowballs to 1,000 staffers and counting”: “Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has brought on more than 700 staffers spread out across 33 states, with a growing number of organizers joining his ranks in states that vote on Super Tuesday, aides told POLITICO.

“All told, the former New York mayor's operation totals more than 1,000 people, a figure that includes hundreds of staffers who work out of his Manhattan headquarters.

“The unprecedented scale and scope of the campaign — he has also spent over $200 million on TV ads — gives Bloomberg a massive footprint in states that hold their primaries on March 3 or later. Bloomberg is also working to provide a Democratic counterbalance to President Donald Trump in parts of the country that are vital to his party in November.” POLITICO

BATTLE FOR THE HOUSE -- WMUR’S JOHN DISTASO: “Former NHGOP executive director, U.S. State Department official Matt Mowers running for Congress”

-- NEW HAMPSHIRE’S 1st Congressional District is one that insists on moderation. It flip-flopped between Republican Frank Guinta and Democrat Carol Shea-Porter between 2007 and 2019. It was a Trump +1 in 2016, and an Obama +1 in 2012.

TRUMP’S TUESDAY -- The president will receive his intel briefing at 2:45 p.m. in the Oval Office. He will leave the White House at 4:40 p.m. en route to Milwaukee. He will speak at a campaign rally at 7 p.m. CST at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. He will depart at 8:30 p.m. en route back to Washington. He’ll arrive at the White House at midnight.

PLAYBOOK READS

AP: “Iran announces arrests over downing of Ukrainian plane,” by Aya Batrawy in DuBai, United Arab Emirates: “Iran’s judiciary said Tuesday that arrests have been made for the accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed all 176 people on board just after takeoff from Tehran last week. The announcement came amid an upswell of anger and protests by Iranians in recent days over the downing of the jetliner last Wednesday and apparent attempts by senior officials in Iran to cover-up the cause of the crash.” AP

-- THE BIG PICTURE: “Iran’s crisis of competence,” by POLITICO Europe’s Christian Oliver: “This is dangerous territory for Iran’s rulers. Accusations that the leader is mismanaging the country (and fomenting corruption) plays to a fury that unites the reformist camp with many more conservative Iranians. At both ends of the political spectrum, there’s intense frustration that the Islamic Republic never delivered, and that neighbors like Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates put themselves on the map in a way that Iranians always aspired to, either politically or economically.”

THE POST USES THE L WORD: “‘Four embassies’: The anatomy of Trump’s unfounded claim about Iran,” by WaPo’s Philip Rucker, John Hudson, Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey: “‘I can reveal I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,’ he said in an interview Friday with Fox News Channel. …

“Based on what is known so far, Trump’s statement was at best an unfounded theory and at worst a falsehood. At each turn in the commander in chief’s rapidly evolving narrative of why he authorized the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the machinery of government scrambled to adapt and respond.

“The result is a credibility crisis for an administration that has long struggled to communicate factual information to the public. At a perilous moment for the nation’s security, with the United States at the brink of war with Iran, Trump is unable to rely on trustworthiness to justify his decision to take out Soleimani, both because of his lengthy record of exaggerations and lies and because of his ever-shifting rationales.” WaPo

BARR’S SCRAPPLE WITH APPLE -- “U.S. Calls Pensacola Attack Terrorism; Pressures Apple Over Gunman’s Locked Phones,” by WSJ’s Sadie Gurman, Dustin Volz and Nancy Youssef: “Attorney General William Barr called the December attack by a Saudi aviation student that killed three people at a Florida Navy base an act of terrorism, escalating pressure on Apple Inc. to help unlock a pair of the gunman’s iPhones that could provide more information about his radicalization.

“Mr. Barr called on Apple to find a way to crack the encrypted phones in a high-profile request that ramped up a long-simmering fight between tech firms and the government over how to best balance digital security with the imperatives of criminal investigations. … Justice Department officials said only a look at data and communications on the gunman’s phones could help them say for certain whether he discussed his plans with others.” WSJ Barr’s remarks

-- BUT, BUT, BUT … @dnvolz: “DoJ and FBI officials had a phone briefing w/ congressional staff this morning and acknowledged they were aware there was nothing Apple could do to unlock the Pensacola shooter's iPhones, per aides familiar with the call.”

-- @joshgerstein: “Very important. What feds are seeking is not simply technical assistance in accessing these phones, but the right to build-in access in advance.”

HMMM … “Zinke gives $11K in campaign cash to foundation he started,” by AP’s Matt Volz in Helena, Mont.: “Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has closed his congressional campaign account and given nearly all of the fundraising cash that was left to a charitable foundation he started and his wife now runs.

“Federal Election Commission reports show that Zinke, a former Republican U.S. representative from Montana, terminated his House campaign fundraising account earlier this month. The last transaction is a Dec. 8 payment of $11,594 to the Great Northern Foundation.

“Zinke founded that nonprofit organization to maintain a park in Whitefish, Montana, his hometown. He is no longer on the foundation’s board, but his wife Lola is the president of the foundation, previously known as the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation.” AP

MEDIAWATCH -- “Jitters at MSNBC as Brass Eyes Moving Chuck Todd and Talks to Shep Smith: Chuck Todd’s daily show could move to mornings, causing angst among the show’s staff. Other potential changes could alter weekends and, eventually, the network’s primetime roster,” by The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani, Lloyd Grove and Lachlan Cartwright

-- LAWRENCE LESSIG is suing the NYT for defamation. Medium post

-- Matt Bai is now a politics contributing columnist at WaPo. He previously was national political columnist for Yahoo and a longtime NYT Magazine writer. Announcement

-- Victoria Chow is now a consumer communications manager at Reddit. She previously was communications director for The California Sunday Magazine and Pop-Up Magazine.

-- Andrew Thorne will be COS at Klik Media. He is currently editorial operations manager at POLITICO.

PLAYBOOKERS

IN MEMORIAM -- “Roger Scruton, R.I.P.,” by National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty: “The most important conservative thinker of his generation, the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, has died. He was 75 and suffering from cancer. In his life he published scores of books on a dizzying number of topics, ranging through politics, art, music, the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, religion, and fox hunting. He also wrote fiction, including the novels Notes from Underground and The Disappeared and the collection Souls in the Twilight. He composed an opera (The Minister) and a handful of songs.” National Review

SPOTTED: Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) getting off a Frontier Airlines flight at DCA on Monday.

OUT AND ABOUT … SPOTTED at a party Monday night for Lee Drutman’s new book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America” ($25.16 on Amazon), hosted by Peter Ackerman: Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), David Brooks, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Tom Glaisyer, Avik Roy, Chris Shays, Karlyn Bowman, Kristen Soltis Anderson, Soren Daytn, Kerry Healey and Jerry Taylor.

TRANSITIONS -- Former Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) is now a co-chairman at Mercury Public Affairs. He most recently was a senior legislative adviser at McDermott Will & Emery. … Stephanie Ryska is joining Koch Industries as manager of digital content strategy. She previously was senior manager of social media and digital marketing at the Chamber of Commerce. …

… Stacy Rich and Charles Carithers are joining Cornerstone Government Affairs. Rich currently is leadership staff director for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Carithers previously was a professional staff member for the House Homeland Security Dems.

BIRTHWEEK (was Monday): Andrew Yang turned 45 … Ken Pollack turned 54

BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Susan Glasser, New Yorker staff writer and CNN global affairs analyst. A trend she thinks doesn’t get enough attention: “Anti-corruption protests spread around the world over the last year, toppling governments and conventional wisdoms everywhere from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq to Hong Kong and Russia, Indonesia, Bolivia and Ecuador.” Playbook Q&A

BIRTHDAYS: Shepard Smith is 56 … Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) is 58 … Maureen Dowd … Bill Plante is 82 (h/t Ben Chang) … LCV President Gene Karpinski is 68 … Michael Reed, RNC deputy COS for comms (h/t Cassie Smedile) … Eric Alterman is 6-0 … Toby Harnden is 54 … Colin Milligan, senior associate director for media relations at the American Hospital Association … Frank Raines is 71 … Jack Torry … Margaret Chadbourn … Michael Block … Karl Beckstein … WaPo’s Molly Gannon and Jen Liberto … CAP’s Marcella Bombardieri … David Vyorst … Alexandra Shapiro … Mary Kusler … Sean Johnson of the Maryland State Education Association (h/t Brian Dunn) … Amanda Callanan, VP of communications at the Claremont Institute …

… Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent … Teddy Eynon … Andrea Seabrook, managing editor at Countable … Michael Tuchin is 55 ... Ben Koltun, senior research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors ... Christina Daigneault … William Johnson … former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue is 73 ... Francisco Martin-Rayo ... Duncan Currie … Sinead Casey ... Ellen Wulfhorst, chief correspondent for the Americas at the Thomson Reuters Foundation … John Ellsworth ... Regina Schofield ... Jeffrey Webb ... Marc Schloss … Andy Gussert … Mary Jane Cobb (h/ts Teresa Vilmain) … Megan Milligan … Brennan Moss … Doug Michelman, president of the Sprint 1Million Project Foundation … Erin Haber (h/ts Jon Haber) … Hugh Kaufman … Andrew Baris