There’s no denying it: Covid is rocking Washington right now. Days after Saturday’s annual Gridiron Club dinner, multiple attendees of the boujee 600-seat confab have come down with it — including Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO, A.G. MERRICK GARLAND and Reps. ADAM SCHIFF (D-Calif.) and JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-Texas).
By Wednesday afternoon, another high-profile attendee — JAMAL SIMMONS, comms director to VP KAMALA HARRIS — revealed that he, too, tested positive. That test result came just a day after he shook former President BARACK OBAMA’s hand at the White House’s Obamacare party, where President JOE BIDEN and 200 other high-level officials hobnobbed maskless while celebrating the health care law.
Throughout the District on Wednesday, the possible superspreader event was seemingly all anyone could talk about, as NYT’s Katie Rogers writes. Reporters and pols alike found themselves trading text messages about who sat by whom and whether so-and-so who was feeling ill got a positive test result. The entire situation, she notes, is a reminder “that, even as officials seek to pivot away from strict restrictions and encourage Americans to learn to live with the coronavirus, the pandemic is not over.”
The Gridiron dinner isn’t the only likely superspreader event piercing the This Town bubble. As Eugene, Sam Stein and Steven Overly reported Wednesday, “a number of individuals who attended a prominent antitrust conference in Brussels last week also came down with Covid … Additionally, a number of reporters who attended a going-away party for National Security Council spokesperson EMILY HORNE have tested positive for Covid.”
TWO MAJOR QUESTIONS:
1. How will this affect the White House — especially POTUS? Biden is twice boosted, but let’s face it: He’s no spring chicken, and is demographically in a high-risk group. Even so, the 79-year-old has been out there mingling with the maskless masses at a bunch of events amid the D.C. spike. On Wednesday: the national conference of North America’s Building Trades Unions and a postal bill signing event. On Tuesday: the White House’s Obamacare commemoration. On Monday: a South Lawn gathering, at which he posed for photos with attendees.
And as D.C. numbers increase, people have asked about the safety protocols surrounding the most powerful man in the world. WSJ’s Andrew Restuccia and Sabrina Siddiqui have some answers: “People who come into contact with the president, both staff and visitors, are tested for the virus that day. Meetings with the president often are socially distanced, the officials said. The White House has said it would make public any positive cases for staffers who have come into close contact with the president, first lady, vice president or second gentleman.”
— Why the risk, you ask? Here’s the W.H. calculus, per Restuccia and Siddiqui: “Administration officials acknowledged that the president’s regular contact with advisers and supporters could expose him to Covid-19. But they said it was important for Mr. Biden to project a sense of semi-normalcy as many Americans are opting to leave their homes, return to work and socialize with friends. With midterm elections scheduled for the fall, a Wall Street Journal poll in March found that Democrats held an 11-point edge on which party would best handle the pandemic, down from a 16-point edge in November.”
2. Will this change the plans for “Nerd Prom”? Rogers aptly called this new surge the “invisible party crasher,” but it’s yet to be determined whether this unwanted guest will close down the party completely or just dampen the mood. Our ace colleagues on West Wing Playbook reported Wednesday night that when it comes to the much-anticipated White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the show will go on.
WHCA President STEVEN PORTNOY told Max Tani and Alex Thompson that “the organization developed guidelines months ago in preparation for a more-complicated-than-normal dinner. All attendees will have to show proof of a negative test the day of the event. There is no vaccine mandate (as there was for the Gridiron dinner), but the WHCA has previously said that the vast majority of its members are vaccinated and boosted, reducing the likelihood that contracting the virus would put many of those individuals at risk of serious illness.”
WHCA isn’t alone in refusing to call it quits, the pair add. “Talent agency CAA is putting on an exclusive party on a hotel rooftop near Logan Circle, while MSNBC and CNN are both still planning yet-to-be-announced parties. POLITICO is hosting several events, including the annual brunch at the home of founder ROBERT ALLBRITTON that will require vaccines and boosters for entry. The invites for UTA’s annual party Friday night at Georgetown’s Fiola Mare went out on Wednesday.” Party at your own risk, D.C.
It’s Thursday morning — and Tarmac Fever is spreading throughout the Capitol. Thanks for reading Playbook, where we are also ready for the two-week congressional recess. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.
BIDEN’S THURSDAY — The president and VP will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10:15 a.m.
Press secretary JEN PSAKI will brief at 1 p.m.
THE HOUSE will meet at 9 a.m. The Administration Committee will hold a hearing on stock trading reforms for members of Congress at 9:10 a.m. Speaker NANCY PELOSI will hold her weekly press conference at 10:45 a.m.
THE SENATE is in. Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. MARK MILLEY will be among those testifying before the Armed Services Committee at 9:30 a.m. IRS Commissioner CHARLES RETTIG will testify before the Finance Committee at 10 a.m.
And if all in the Senate goes as planned, Biden SCOTUS nominee KETANJI BROWN JACKSON will be confirmed to the high court before your afternoon coffee, per a timeline unveiled by Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER on Wednesday night. Expect an 11 a.m. cloture vote, followed by final confirmation around 1:45 p.m.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
BIPARTISAN GROUP CALLS FOR BIDEN TO REVERSE TITLE 42 CHANGES — A bipartisan group of 11 senators will introduce a bill today preventing the Biden administration from “from lifting Title 42 without a detailed plan in place to stop an expected surge of migrants at the border,” Axios’ Alayna Treene reports. This bill will only up the pressure on the White House to delay its plan for a May 23 scale-back of DONALD TRUMP’s pandemic-era crackdown on asylum-seekers, which has vulnerable Democrats panicking about a border surge just before the midterms.
But it also could cause some complications for the administration’s $10 billion Covid funding package, which has been stalled in the Senate amid GOP demands for a vote on a similar idea. While Schumer has blasted Republicans for trying to hold up needed pandemic bill over Title 42, this group is making clear that there’s bipartisan support to attach this provision to that legislation, per the story.
— More on the bill, per Treene: “The bill urges the Biden administration to delay ending Title 42 until 60 days after the Surgeon General submits written notification to Congress formally rescinding the Covid-19 public health emergency and the national emergency.”
— The signers: KYRSTEN SINEMA (D-Ariz.), JAMES LANKFORD (R-Okla.), MARK KELLY (D-Ariz.), MAGGIE HASSAN (D-N.H.), JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.), JON TESTER (D-Mont.), JOHN THUNE (R-S.D.), JOHN CORNYN (R-Texas), THOM TILLIS (R-N.C.), SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO (R-W.Va.) and ROB PORTMAN (R-Ohio).
Speaking of the border …
ABBOTT TO BUS MIGRANTS TO D.C. — Texas Gov. GREG ABBOTT is pulling a page from Trump and STEPHEN MILLER’s playbook: “At a press conference on Wednesday, Abbott unveiled a stunning plan that sent a shockwave through the immigration rights community: Texas would place state troopers in riot gear to meet migrants at the border and bus them straight to the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where he said the Biden administration ‘will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border,’” the Texas Tribune’s James Barragan reports.
— We’re getting flashbacks to this story we wrote a few years ago, when Trump and MIller said they’d do this and drop migrants in Pelosi’s district for payback for not funding his wall. AP has more on Texas’ other border action.
AND IN OTHER EYE-POPPING BORDER NEWS: “Homeland Security Watchdog Omitted Damaging Findings From Reports,” NYT’s Chris Cameron scoops, writing this morning that the DHS IG “and his top aides directed staff members to remove damaging findings from investigative reports on domestic violence and sexual misconduct by officers in the department’s law enforcement agencies.”
THE WHITE HOUSE
WaPo is up with a pair of early reads this morning about the Biden White House:
1) JUST POSTED AT 3 A.M.: “Biden at war: Inside a deliberate yet impulsive Ukraine strategy,” by Ashley Parker, Tyler Pager and Marianna Sotomayor, which leads with a tick-tock of the president’s “this man cannot remain in power” gaffe: “The 37-minute scramble to clarify Biden’s nine-word gaffe, details of which have not been previously reported, illustrates the singular role Biden has played during Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine — at times emotional and freewheeling, at other times carefully choreographed and deliberate, but frequently a central player in helping to marshal the West’s response to Russia.”
“As the war enters its seventh week Thursday, Biden has left his distinct imprint on the crisis — in ways both intentional and not, and in ways that have both clarified and complicated the situation.”
2) JUST POSTED AT 5 A.M.: “Why Biden’s executive order on policing is still up in the air,” by David Nakamura, Mark Berman and Annie Linskey: “The Biden White House is struggling to reshape an executive order on police accountability three months after a leaked draft drew sharp opposition from law enforcement groups, putting the initiative at risk at a time when violent crime is rising and civil rights groups have expressed frustration over the pace of reform.”
“Police organizations said they remain in talks with Biden’s domestic policy adviser, SUSAN RICE, and other senior aides. But nearly two years after the police killings of GEORGE FLOYD, BREONNA TAYLOR and others sparked nationwide protests and demands for change, the White House has offered no timeline for the release of the order or details of what it might include.”
DRAMA AT NBC OVER REPORTED PSAKI HIRING — The recent news that Psaki is leaving the administration to take on a job at MSNBC and Peacock is causing some internal strife at NBC News, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports. “NOAH OPPENHEIM, the NBC News president, even held an impromptu phone call Friday so that he could address the matter with vexed staffers from the Washington bureau, some of whom have complained to their superiors that the tentative hiring tarnishes the NBC News brand. Oppenheim, attempting to quell the anger, reaffirmed the distinction on the call between NBC News and MSNBC’s opinion programming, some of the people familiar with the matter said. Oppenheim, who does not oversee MSNBC, told the journalists that NBC News did not have a role in hiring Psaki.”
CONSERVATIVES REVOLT AGAINST TRUMP ENDORSEMENT — Ahead of Trump’s visit to North Carolina this weekend, a group of local conservatives are trying to sink the candidacy of BO HIMES, a 26-year-old from outside the congressional district he’s running in. Natalie Allison has the story this morning: “Through newspaper advertisements, email blasts and door-knocking, some local Republicans are trying to spread the word that Hines, Trump’s favored candidate in the 13th Congressional District, is a carpetbagger. In their view, the former president was misguided in endorsing Hines over homegrown conservatives invested in local party politics.”
SECRET SPENDING SOARS — NYT’s Ken Vogel, Shane Goldmacher and Ryan Mac have the deets on a “new coalition of wealthy conservative benefactors” who descended on Mar-a-Lago this week for a private summit “that included closed-door addresses from former President Donald J. Trump and an allied Senate candidate.” Who they are: “The coalition, called the Rockbridge Network, includes some of Mr. Trump’s biggest donors, such as PETER THIEL and REBEKAH MERCER, and has laid out an ambitious goal — to reshape the American right by spending more than $30 million on conservative media, legal, policy and voter registration projects, among other initiatives.
“The emergence of Rockbridge, the existence of which has not previously been reported, comes amid escalating jockeying among conservative megadonors to shape the 2022 midterms and the future of the Republican Party from outside the formal party machinery, and often with little disclosure.”
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — A group of politically engaged parents is launching a new initiative, called Keep Families Afloat, “focused on supporting the expanded monthly Child Tax Credit (CTC) and calling for increased visibility for the CTC among policymakers, candidates, and voters” ahead of the midterms. “Keep Families Afloat will focus its resources on demanding political candidates to address concerns from parents around the CTC, publishing political data demonstrating the importance of the CTC, running visibility tactics like billboards, digital advertisements, and more to keep up momentum. The initiative will also endorse candidates in key races who are speaking up for the CTC’s extension and hold Members of Congress accountable for voting against the program.” The group includes some big names in Democratic politics: BUFFY WICKS, SACHIN CHHEDA and DYLAN HEWITT, NICK MERRILL and ADDISU DEMISSIE.
JAN. 6 AND ITS AFTERMATH
RACKING UP THE CONTEMPT VOTES — The House on Wednesday voted 220-203 to hold former Trump advisers DAN SCAVINO and PETER NAVARRO in contempt of Congress, formally kicking the cases to the Justice Department for review, Nicholas Wu and Kyle Cheney report. “Scavino and Navarro bring to four the number of close Trump allies that have been referred for prosecution because of their decision to defy the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.”
— How important are these two witnesses? “Scavino is the more significant of the two witnesses the House held in contempt. A longtime Trump confidant, Scavino was with the then-president during key moments on Jan. 6, and call records suggest Trump reached out to him by phone that evening. Scavino was also intimately involved in Trump’s social media strategy and may have insights into the December 2020 decision to call supporters to a ‘wild’ protest in Washington on Jan. 6, a tweet that was seen among extremists as a call to action.”
FOR THOSE KEEPING TRACK — A federal judge on Wednesday squashed one of STEVE BANNON’s key defenses against criminal contempt charges, ruling that the former Trump aide’s claims of executive privilege are not applicable in his case, Kyle reports.
TALE OF THE TAPE — The first outright acquittal stemming from a Jan. 6 defendant’s case has now landed. “Following a two-day bench trial, New Mexico engineer MATTHEW MARTIN was acquitted Wednesday on four misdemeanor charges by Judge TREVOR MCFADDEN. Martin claimed that he thought police allowed him into an entrance near the Capitol Rotunda. McFadden said that, based on video of the scene, that assertion was at least plausible and prosecutors failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Josh Gerstein writes.
The Capitol Hill fox saga took a dark turn. On Wednesday, officials announced that the creature, which was captured and euthanized after biting at least nine people this week, tested positive for rabies. Per NYT’s Chris Cameron: “It was not immediately clear what additional measures would be taken for the local fox population after the positive test.” And the little ones? “The late vixen’s children — known as kits — were also found on the Capitol grounds and recovered on Wednesday morning, D.C. Health said. Officials said they were still determining what to do with the kits.” (If the babies are also put down, Rachael might have a meltdown.)
Marjorie Taylor Greene accused Jimmy Kimmel of making a violent “threat” against her, and filed the claim with the U.S. Capitol Police. The offending incident? On his ABC late-night show, Kimmel referenced Greene’s outlandish false claim that Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins were “pro-pedophile” for supporting Ketanji Brown Jackson’s SCOTUS nomination, and said, “Wow, where is Will Smith when you really need him?”
Speaking of Greene, Donald Trump endorsed her congressional campaign Wednesday.
IN MEMORIAM — Eric Boehlert “was killed by a New Jersey Transit train near the [Montclair] Watchung Avenue station Monday night,” NorthJersey.com’s Julia Martin reports. “Boehlert, 57, was a veteran writer and media analyst and a frequent television and radio guest discussing politics and the press on CNN and CNBC. He was a founding editor of Salon magazine, a fellow with Media Matters, and a former writer with Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines. He wrote two books, ‘Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush,’ and ‘Bloggers on the Bus.’” An outpouring of remembrances flooded Twitter on Wednesday as his former colleagues, friends and admirers — including Hillary Clinton — expressed their grief and appreciation for his life.
AND THE AWARD GOES TO — The White House Correspondents’ Association announced its 2022 award winners: Axios’ Jonathan Swan for overall excellence, AP’s Zeke Miller and Mike Balsamo for coverage of the CDC easing mask guidance, ABC’s Jonathan Karl for Jan. 6 coverage, AFP’s Brendan Smialowski for a photo of the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, WaPo and others for their Pandora Papers investigations. See all the work here
OUT AND ABOUT — SPOTTED at the annual National Action Network’s annual “Keeper of the Dreams” awards gala in New York: honorees U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Yolanda Adams, Camille Joseph-Gordon, Brian Flores and Bryan Stevenson. It was the first time the gala was held in two years because of the pandemic.
After receiving the Chairman’s Award from Rev. Al Sharpton and past honoree MSNBC President Rashida Jones, Thomas-Greenfield spoke about the importance of supporting Ukrainians and shared a story about facing off with the Russian ambassador at the U.N. Security Council (“Someone told me I did a perfect side-eye to my Russian counterpart. What’s a side-eye?” she said.). Also present: NYC Mayor Eric Adams and Uber executive Tony West, who also happens to be Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law.
— SPOTTED at a fundraiser in support of Core’s work to aid Ukrainian refugees hosted by Brittany Swalwell and Robert and Lo-Mari O’Brien, and special guest Sean Penn: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) and Ruben (D-Ariz.) and Sydney Gallego, Qatari Ambassador Bin Hamad Al Thani, Dan Foote, Romanian Ambassador Andrei Mararu, Yardena Wolf, Bill Rockwood, Michael Fanone, Harry Dunn, Brad Howard, Kristen Hawn, Kelley Williams, Lin Whitehouse, retired Lt. Col. Alex and Rachel Vindman, and Kurt Bardella and Miroslava Korenha.
— SPOTTED at the Dream Corps Day Of Empathy celebration at the National Building Museum on Tuesday night: Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Van Jones, Chiraag Bains, Jessica Jackson and Reuben Vincent.
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Rebecca Good has joined the American Enterprise Institute to support new initiatives strengthening Black uplift, campus engagement and policy traction. She is a former McKinsey analyst, Harvard chaplain and K-8 school founder.
NEW NOMINEES — The White House announced several new nominees, including Carol Spahn as director of the Peace Corps, Robin Hutcheson as Federal Motor Carrier Safety administrator at DOT, and Jaime Lizárraga and Mark Uyeda as SEC commissioners.
STAFFING UP — Michael Horowitz is now director of the Defense Department’s Office of Emerging Capabilities Policy. He previously was director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.
TRANSITIONS — Carson Steelman is now press secretary for Heritage Action. She previously was a senior account executive at Athos PR and is a Greg Steube alum. … Sakshi Mahajan is now senior coordinator of legal talent, recruiting and training at Sullivan & Cromwell. She previously was director of research and communication at HHQ Ventures.
WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Pete Davis, director of the Democracy Policy Network and author of “Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing,” and Lark Turner, an attorney at the FTC, on Friday welcomed Francis Shelton Davis, who is named after St. Francis and Pete’s father. Pic … Another pic
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Reps. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) and Troy Nehls (R-Texas) … POLITICO’s Daniel Lippman and Fernando Rodas … Cavalry’s Josh Holmes … Meghan Green … Insider’s Darren Samuelsohn … CNN’s Kaitlan Collins (3-0), Noah Gray, Brad Parks and Cliff Hackel … Michael Meehan … Mike Abboud … John Caddock of Rep. Alex Mooney’s (R-W.Va.) office … James Edwards … HuffPost’s Paige Lavender … Maggie Severns … Giffords’ Brandi Porter … former California Gov. Jerry Brown … Katie Bailey … Michael Ciamarra of the Senate Appropriations GOP … Raymond Rodriguez of Rep. Ritchie Torres’ (D-N.Y.) office … Richard Reyes-Gavilan … Tom Snedeker of the Herald Group … Jessica Chasmar … Eugene Kiely … Daniel Ellsberg (9-0) … Valerie Nelson … former Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) … Dana Gray … Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli … Mother Jones’ Jeremy Schulman … Bob Eitel … Hodding Carter III … Rene Redwood … former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels … FWD.us’ Todd Schulte … Alan Hoffman … Bill McQuillen of Invariant … Sara Croom