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China on Sunday condemned the U.S. destruction of its suspected spy balloon as an “overreaction,” saying it reserved the right to use necessary means to deal with “similar situations,” without elaborating.
Analysts interviewed by Reuters said they expect Beijing to carefully calibrate any actual “serious repercussions” at a time when each country has sought to repair relations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who began a third five-year term as party leader in October, has tried to ease tensions with Western countries — including the United States, Australia and European powers — worried that they are coalescing into a firmer alliance committed to containing Chinese power (The New York Times).
Some analysts said it was significant that China did not claim violations of international law following the U.S. missile’s downing of China’s dirigible near the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.
“They need to think about their own rights in case the U.S. starts sending balloons or drones into China,” Julian Ku, a Hofstra University law professor who studies China’s role in international law, told the Times. “If they push too hard here, it would undermine a future legal argument they might need to make.”
NBC News: China’s statements on Sunday described the balloon as a “civilian unmanned airship.” Beijing had previously said the orb was used for research and “meteorological purposes.”
All senators will receive a briefing on Feb. 15, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced. The top leaders of both parties from the House and Senate are expected to receive a briefing on Tuesday (NBC News).
Hours before an F-22 fighter jet let the air out of the perceived threat, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) accused President Biden of failing to act. “First Biden refused to defend our borders. Now he won’t defend our skies,” he tweeted.
His criticism, echoed by other Republican lawmakers, indicated confusion about why the government allowed the mysterious orb to travel without intervention from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. The Defense Department also accused China of having similar high-altitude equipment over Latin America, an assertion confirmed by Colombia (Reuters). The president said he privately ordered the balloon to be shot down a day after he was initially briefed last week.
His decision on Wednesday was four days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to arrive in Beijing to meet with Xi, a high-level discussion Blinken canceled after the balloon appeared over Montana. Four days passed between the president’s order to bring down the Chinese balloon and the U.S. missile strike over open ocean, which left a debris field seven miles long on Saturday. Bloomberg News reports that the administration wants to get Blinken’s China trip back on the calendar soon.
“Let’s wait till the safest place to do it,” the president said he was advised.
Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Biden critic who did not wait for briefings before discussing what he “imagines” China may have been up to, said the U.S. government may not glean much intelligence from the balloon debris (The Hill).
“I don’t believe this is the last time we’re gonna see this sort of thing happen,” Rubio told ABC’s “This Week.” “I don’t think this is coincidental. I think they did this on purpose to send a message to the world.”
▪ The Hill: Why the U.S. waited to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon.
▪ The New York Times: The Navy and the Coast Guard will need days to retrieve the remains of China’s deflated balloon apparatus from the Atlantic Ocean.
▪ The Hill: Balloons similar to the one causing such a stir have flown over the U.S. at least three times during the Trump administration and once earlier during Biden’s term, according to a senior U.S. defense official. (Former President Trump, however, accused the Pentagon of “fake disinformation.”)
▪ Politico: Reacting to GOP critiques and Trump’s pushback, Biden administration officials offered to brief former Trump administration officials about past Chinese spy balloon incursions.
▪ Army University Press: When the balloon goes up: High-altitude for U.S. military application (2019).
▪ The Hill: Bipartisan opposition in Congress is mounting against the use in this country of TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, based on national security and privacy concerns.
▪ The Hill: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on Sunday told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that TikTok is working “with U.S. intelligence folks to try to make sure that the proper precautions are taken so the Chinese cannot get access and use it for spying.”
▪ Forbes: TikTok’s CEO is scheduled to testify March 23 about the company’s security during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.
LEADING THE DAY
In the most overt and coordinated effort from within conservative circles to stop Trump from winning the GOP nomination for a third straight presidential election, the network of donors and activist groups led by conservative billionaire Charles Koch announced on Sunday it will oppose Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination (The Washington Post). The Koch network sat out the past two presidential primaries, and it is unclear how impactful its opposition can become heading into 2024. Trump’s brand of economic nationalism has clashed with the free-trade inclinations of the Kochs and their allies.
“The Republican Party is nominating bad candidates who are advocating for things that go against core American principles. And the American people are rejecting them,” Emily Seidel, chief executive of the network’s flagship group, Americans for Prosperity, wrote in a memo released publicly on Sunday. “If we want better candidates, we’ve got to get involved in elections earlier and in more primaries.”
The decision by the powerful network to challenge Trump marks an escalation of a long-simmering feud over the Republican Party’s core policy commitments. Comprising an array of political and advocacy groups that have been backed by hundreds of ultrawealthy conservatives, the Koch network has been among the most influential forces in American politics over the past 15 years, spending nearly $500 million supporting GOP candidates and conservative policies in the 2020 election cycle alone — but never before in presidential primaries (The Hill and The New York Times).
While Biden and Trump may have each drawn a record number of votes in 2020, at this early stage in the 2024 election cycle, Americans are showing little enthusiasm for a rematch between the two leaders, a new Washington Post-ABC poll shows.
Neither candidate generates broad excitement within his own party, and 62 percent of Americans say they would be dissatisfied or angry if either wins in 2024. Biden, who has yet to formally announce his reelection bid, has no current opposition for his party’s nomination, whereas Trump is likely to face a broad field of challengers.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 58 percent said they would prefer someone other than Biden as their nominee in 2024, the poll found — almost double the 31 percent who support Biden. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they prefer someone other than Trump as their nominee in 2024, compared with 44 percent who favor the former president.
But neither the midterm elections — where the predicted Republican “red wave” failed to materialize — nor the classified documents investigations into both Biden and Trump significantly changed the public’s overall perceptions of the candidates, according to the poll.
▪ The Hill: Prospects rise for N.Y. charges against Trump in Stormy Daniels case.
▪ Business Insider: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) says Trump can’t beat Biden in 2024 because he’s going to be “seen as a very extreme candidate.”
Republican lawmakers across the country, meanwhile, are targeting education policies, none more so than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made headlines opposing College Board courses and overhauling the board of New College of Florida.
After DeSantis targeted advanced placement African American studies in Florida high schools, Afro-Latino educators pushed back on Saturday. DeSantis’s crusade on diversity and race comes in a state that was colonized by the Spanish, where the intersections of Black, Latino and Indigenous culture and history abound. The first Generation Z member of Congress, Rep. Maxwell Frost, is a Florida Democrat who identifies as Afro-Cuban.
Educator and community activist Ted Victor told NBC News he was outraged when he learned DeSantis said the course his daughter planned to take “significantly lacks educational value.”
“No educational value, like something you can discard, something you can just throw away, something that says you are not as important as other people,” said Victor, who is Afro-Latino and has taught for 25 years at the middle school, high school and college levels.
After what he describes as the “liberation” of New College of Florida, on whose board of trustees he now sits, DeSantis ally and think tank activist Christopher Rufo is taking aim at Florida State University, targeting its diversity, equity and inclusion instruction (Tallahassee Democrat).
DeSantis wants to mandate a “core curriculum” in Florida’s public universities, grounded in Western civilization, writes The Hill’s Daniel de Visé, but to the nation’s higher education leaders, that idea is kryptonite. In theory, every student should emerge from college with a core of human knowledge: Shakespeare and Dante, Newton and Curie, the length of a Senate term and a rough definition of pi. But college faculties have struggled mightily to decide what a core curriculum should include. As a result, students can graduate from Amherst or Brown, Harvard or Johns Hopkins without ever taking a course in science or history. A few elite universities (Columbia, the University of Chicago) maintain ancient core curricula.
But creating a new one? Best of luck, academics say.
▪ The Hill: What to know about education savings accounts, the school-choice measure making waves in states, including in Florida, where they’re called “empowerment savings accounts” and will have a prominent place in the spring legislative session.
▪ The Chronicle of Higher Education: “This is how censorship happens.” How vague laws and heightened fears are creating a repressive climate on campus.
▪ Fox News: As “woke” curriculum increases, classical education booms: Hillsdale College sees 53 percent increase in applications.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
➤ STATE OF THE UNION & ECONOMY
Biden on Tuesday night will use a ritualized primetime address and real-world examples to tell listeners that the economy is strong, that the country remains a beacon of hope around the world and that, while his policies give working families “breathing room,” GOP proposals are putting progress at risk.
His examples of work left to do: voting and reproductive rights, gun safety and policing reforms, immigration laws, and responsible tax and spending commitments.
The State of the Union speech, in the minds of the president’s advisers, is a seamless conversation Biden has been having with voters since his candidacy in 2020 and throughout the pandemic, corporate uncertainties, Russia’s war with Ukraine, inflation and home-grown threats to democracy.
The president’s recent victory swing through states and communities is expected to morph into a reelection bid. He will be 81 in November. The contest next year could become a rematch with Trump, a notion that polls show does not sit well with voters of either party. Whether Trump is challenged in the primary by one or up to a dozen possible aspirants remains to be seen. For the time being, Biden’s contrasts are with the “ultra MAGA” Republican Party that he says Trump and McCarthy encourage.
The economy, as always, is top of mind, but even economists can’t agree on where things are headed. Soft landing? Recession? Something truly unanticipated? Last week’s official report that more than half a million jobs were created in January left analysts and experts pulling their jaws off the floor. Biden, however, was smiling.
“I’m happy to report that the state of the Union and the state of our economy is strong,” he said Friday.
▪ The Hill: What we learned about the U.S. economy last week.
▪ CBS News poll: Americans’ positive views of the United States economy remain well below half but ticked up slightly over the past week.
Biden this month will continue to champion changes he’s signed into law and mandated through executive action in the past two years, even as some of his most controversial policies have been blocked or overturned in the courts. He says he’s delivering historic, bipartisan rewards for workers, U.S. companies, consumers, college students, veterans — and hundreds of millions of families who are trying to raise children in a fast-moving, diverse world. Republicans, in turn, say Democrats’ penchant for trillions of dollars in new spending worsened inflation, wasted taxpayer resources and compounded Uncle Sam’s projected red ink as far as the eye can see.
▪ The Hill: Five things Biden is likely to say and not say in the State of the Union speech.
▪ The Hill: Five ways U.S. default could impact Americans.
▪ The New York Times, guest essay: How to turn a boring speech into something Americans will want to watch.
▪ The White House: Here’s where to watch on Tuesday night.
▪ The Hill: The inflation-fighting Federal Reserve in 2023 is haunted by the ghost of the central bank in the 1980s.
▪ CBS News “60 Minutes”: “Our advice to the Fed is to stay the course until core inflation starts turning down,” International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told Leslie Stahl during an interview broadcast on Sunday. “The Fed has to be very careful not to start easing financial conditions prematurely.”
▪ The Hill: GOP critic dials up pressure on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): “Tired of caving.”
As of this newsletter writing, Turkey and Syria are reporting more than 1,300 people killed and thousands wounded after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake — one of the most powerful ever recorded in the region. Those numbers are rising by the hour today because of the extent of destruction; many buildings collapsed with large numbers of people buried under rubble (Reuters and Financial Times).
The White House on Sunday night said Biden directed the U.S. Agency for International Development and other federal partners to ready response options to help those affected in the earthquake region. The United States is poised to “provide any and all needed assistance” in coordination with the Turkish government, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. In a televised address, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said offers of aid had poured in from more than 45 nations.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced a Level 4 alert, which includes a call for international aid. The earthquake, raising the specter of a humanitarian crisis in the region, was felt in neighboring Lebanon and Israel (The New York Times).
“We were shaken like a cradle,” a woman with a broken arm and wounds on her face told Reuters in Diyarbakir, in southeast Turkey. “There were nine of us at home. Two sons of mine are still in the rubble, I’m waiting for them.”
Thousands of computer servers around the world, including in the United States, have been targeted by a ransomware hacking attack, Italy’s National Cybersecurity Agency (ACN) said on Sunday, warning organizations to take action to protect their systems (Reuters). U.S. cybersecurity officials said on Sunday they were assessing the impact of the reported incidents and officials in Italy planned to meet today. The hacking on a massive scale sought to exploit a software weakness, ACN Director General Roberto Baldoni said. Italy’s ANSA news agency, citing the ACN, reported that servers had been compromised in other European countries such as France and Finland as well as the United States and Canada.
The hack exploits a vulnerability for which a patch has been available for two years. France’s Computer Emergency Response Team said applying patches now won’t be enough because hackers may have taken advantage and “dropped malicious code” (Bloomberg News).
Meanwhile, Russian forces are putting pressure on Ukraine along a growing portion of the front line, with attacks coming in the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions in recent weeks, in addition to fierce fighting in the Donetsk region around Bakhmut. Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, is increasingly being cut off from other Ukrainian-held territory as Moscow continues to make progress in its efforts to encircle the city. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the situation at the front is “getting tougher” (The Wall Street Journal).
“The occupier throws more and more of its forces to break our defenses,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address on Saturday. “It is very difficult in Bakhmut.”
▪ The New York Times: “Here, it’s like paradise”: Ukraine’s ski resorts offer a respite from the war.
▪ The Guardian: Talk of resignation and retreat swirls in Ukraine as Bakhmut enters an end game.
As NATO prepares for its July summit in Lithuania — where the organization is preparing to admit longtime holdouts Finland and Sweden — Erdoğan is threatening to throw a wrench into the plans. Erdoğan is raising new objections to the admission of Finland, and especially Sweden, over what Turkey perceives as the latter’s lax policies toward Kurdistan Workers Party and other groups that Turkey deems terrorist organizations. And since all NATO members must approve new ones, Erdoğan’s opposition is effectively a veto (Vox).
A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday said Biden should make clear to Erdoğan that Congress is unlikely to approve fighter jet upgrades for Ankara if it fails to advance Sweden’s and Finland’s bids to join NATO (The Hill).
▪ Vox: The labor strikes in Britain are years in the making.
▪ The Atlantic: The French are in a panic over “le wokisme.”
■ Two years, 10 Metrics: Assessing Biden’s presidency, by Bloomberg Opinion contributors. https://bloom.bg/3x3Ul1H
■ The institutional arsonist turns on his own party, by Peter Wehner, contributor, The Atlantic. https://bit.ly/3I1cK5W
WHERE AND WHEN
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The House will convene at noon.
The Senate meets on Tuesday at 3 p.m. to resume consideration of the nomination of DeAndrea Benjamin to be a United States circuit judge for the 4th Circuit.
The president will return to the White House from Camp David at noon.
Vice President Harris at 2 p.m. will host a meeting with U.S. government leaders and private sector representatives to discuss migration from northern Central America.
The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 2:15 p.m. and will include outgoing director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese.
➤ PANDEMIC & HEALTH
🦠 This winter’s COVID-19 surge in the U.S. appears to be fading without hitting nearly as hard as many had feared. Experts had predicted a milder wave of infection compared to the last two winters, but with both the flu and respiratory syncytial virus roaring back in the fall, there were fears of overwhelmed hospital systems and a surge in cases of all three viruses. That’s not what happened. Infection and case numbers have been dropping now for weeks, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leading experts to conclude that multiple factors — including better immunity and vaccination rates — slowed the spread.
“We have what I would call now a better immunity barrier,” Carlos Del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University who heads the Infectious Disease Society of America, told NPR. “Between vaccinations and prior infection I think all of us are in a different place than we were before. All of us, if not totally protected … are somewhat better protected. And that immunologic wall is real.”
The New York Times, opinion: Why are so many Americans dying right now?
💉 America can’t shake the feeling that vaccination rates are about to plummet, The Atlantic reports, but the facts say otherwise. National immunization surveys have not shown substantial drops in coverage for 2020 and 2021, said Robert Bednarczyk, an epidemiologist at Emory University, “but there is a large caveat to this. These surveys have a lag time.” And some early uptake data already provide signs of a “vaccine-hesitancy spillover effect” happening in reverse, driving more enthusiasm, not less, for getting different kinds of shots.
▪ The Washington Post: To curb drug deaths, communities turn to Reddit, texts and wastewater.
▪ The New York Times: Why Apple Watches keep calling 911.
▪ The Hill: Changes to expect in your child’s school lunches under new USDA nutrition standards.
Information about the availability of COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots can be found at Vaccines.gov.
Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported as of this morning, according to Johns Hopkins University (trackers all vary slightly): 1,111,495. Current U.S. COVID-19 deaths are 3,452 for the week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The CDC shifted its tally of available data from daily to weekly, now reported on Fridays.)
And finally … 🦅 For the first time in years, there’s an occupant in the White House who has a stake in the outcome of the Super Bowl — and it’s not the commander in chief. First lady Jill Biden is a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, which means she’s unabashedly proud (an understatement) of the 16-3 season that led her team to the Super Bowl, their second visit in five years. As The Hill’s Amie Parnes reports, last weekend, after arriving at the Delaware Air National Guard base from Camp David, the first lady was spotted on the tarmac in an Eagles shirt. Hours later, she was taking in the NFC championship game in a suite at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia alongside Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. Now, just like her team, she too is heading back to the Super Bowl, something the president let slip during a fundraiser in — where else? — Philadelphia on Friday.
“I’m Jill Biden’s husband,” he announced, adding “She’s a Philly girl so the first thing I’m going to say is go Eagles, fly, Eagles fly.”
The Eagles face off against the Kansas City Chiefs in Arizona on Sunday.
🎙️ The first lady is definitely nabbing some fun assignments. While in California during the weekend for official events tied to military families and support for cancer patients, she stopped in Los Angeles to hobnob with some of music’s finest. At the Grammy Awards on Sunday night, the first lady honored Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour with the inaugural special merit award for “Song for Social Change.” Appearing on stage, Jill Biden said the singer’s hit song “Baraye” became “the anthem of the Mahsa Amini protests, a powerful and poetic poem for freedom and women’s rights” (The Hollywood Reporter).
CNN: Beyoncé officially has the most Grammys of any artist.