Playbook: The RNC’s inopportune trip to Nashville

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With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross


Congress is out, and Washington remains relatively quiet amid the Passover-Easter recess. But don’t let the Beltway’s slow pace fool you: This week will see major moves on a few key dynamics shaping the political landscape.

1. GOP BIGWIGS DESCEND ON TENNESSEE: Wealthy Republicans will convene in Nashville on Friday for the RNC donor retreat — a long-planned event that comes just days after Tennessee Republicans booted two Black Democratic lawmakers from the statehouse for protesting gun laws on the chamber floor (while allowing a third participant who was white to keep her job).

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It’s unlucky timing for a party already exhausted by controversy and hobbling as it tries to win over critical swing voters ahead of the 2024 election.

Privately, Republicans acknowledged to Playbook the inconvenience of visiting a state where local party leaders are mired in ugly headlines and accusations of racism. Their presence, they know, will likely invite questions about whether national Republicans condone the decisions of their Volunteer State brethren — and reporters are likely to hear wildly different answers depending on which GOP officials they ask.

Event speakers include DONALD TRUMP — who hasn’t yet weighed in on the controversy but has never been shy about inserting himself into racially charged fights — but also several moderate House Republicans — like Reps. MIKE LAWLER (R-N.Y.) and MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.), who may not want to be seen siding with the Tennessee GOP on this matter. (Remember that House Democrats in D.C. staged a similar floor protest over gun control in 2016, when the GOP controlled the chamber. And while their protest infuriated Republicans, none were sanctioned, let alone expelled.) See the full list of RNC donor retreat speakers here

2. DEMS RISK SHIFTING DEBATE: The fallout continues from Friday night’s ruling by a Trump-appointed judge overturning the FDA’s approval of mifepristone, the nation’s most commonly used abortion pills. The federal government has until Friday to appeal the decision, which flies in the face of public opinion.

Prominent progressives like Sen. RON WYDEN (D-Ore.) and Rep. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO CORTEZ (D-N.Y.) are demanding that the Biden administration simply ignore the ruling, as our Alice Miranda Ollstein covered over the weekend. And that carries major risks for Dems by threatening to change the topic of debate from the merits of the judge’s controversial verdict, to a debate about democracy and the rule of law.

That may be a political misstep for Dems.

Republicans are already on the defense on abortion rights. The political blowback against the GOP since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year has been ferocious. We saw this in the midterms, when Republicans drastically underperformed expectations, and we saw it again as recently as last week’s Wisconsin’s high court election, which saw the more liberal candidate win handily.

The GOP doesn’t entirely know how to handle this political reality. (Republicans’ “muted response” to Friday’s ruling is the topic of a WSJ story up yesterday.) Calling for President JOE BIDEN to simply ignore the ruling gives Republicans an opening — or at least a way to avoid the politically tricky issue at hand while instead speaking out in defense of the judiciary.

We saw this in real time yesterday. After HHS Secretary XAVIER BECERRA suggested that “everything is on the table” in response to the ruling (including the Wyden/AOC strategy), centrist Texas Republican Rep. TONY GONZALES told CNN that “it’s very dangerous when you have the Biden administration coming out and saying they may not uphold a ruling.”

Democratic leaders have a clear campaign strategy: Use threats to abortion access — including the unpopular mifepristone ruling — to fundraise, fire up the base and win over swing voters. These Democrats believe that the ruling will ultimately be overturned. Why give Republicans a chance to change the subject?

Lastly, there’s the question of slippery slopes. If a Democratic administration actually did ignore a judge’s ruling, you can bet that some Republicans would encourage a GOP president to do the same in the future and sidestep any judicial decisions they dislike.

3. ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Several 2024 hopefuls will be out and about this week trying to garner attention away from the ultimate story-suck: Trump himself. NIKKI HALEY is heading to Iowa again this week, as is her fellow South Carolinian TIM SCOTT, who’s also visiting New Hampshire for the first time this year on Thursday. Florida Gov. RON DeSANTIS will also visit the Granite State on Friday night after a brief stop in Akron, Ohio, for a Lincoln Day breakfast on Thursday.

The big question for all of these candidates is: Will it make a difference? As our colleagues Sally Goldenberg and Natalie Allison write today, Trump’s scandals have been dominating the headlines, making it difficult — if not impossible — for other candidates to gain traction.

Last week, for example, as Trump was being indicted for falsifying records related to his hush money payment to porn star STORMY DANIELS, Haley was on the U.S.-Mexico border complaining that no one was talking about border issues because of Trump’s “political drama.” (And virtually no one was paying any attention to former Secretary of State and CIA Director MIKE POMPEO’s visit to Ukraine, news that would’ve received more coverage were it not for Trump’s gravitational pull on media attention.)

THE REST OF THE WEEK — Today: World Bank/IMF spring meetings begin in Washington. … Tomorrow: Biden arrives in Northern Ireland. … Wednesday: Biden meets with British PM RISHI SUNAK and speaks in Belfast before departing for Dublin. Labor Department issues new Consumer Price Index numbers. … Thursday: Jury selection begins for Dominion v. Fox News lawsuit. Biden addresses Ireland’s parliament. … Friday: Treasury Secretary JANET YELLEN briefs the IMF/World Bank meetings. Annual NRA meeting opens in Indianapolis, featuring live speeches from Trump, MIKE PENCE, CHRIS SUNUNU, KRISTI NOEM and ASA HUTCHINSON. Saturday: FEC Q1 filing deadline.

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

JUST POSTED — N.Y. Mag’s Olivia Nuzzi profiles Stormy Daniels, who gives Olivia an oracle card reading, introduces her to “Susan, a doll possessed, she said, by the spirit of a child from the 1700s,” and shares her reaction to Trump’s indictment (“It doesn’t feel like I thought it would. It just doesn’t feel like anything. It doesn’t feel like a victory.”).

THE OTHER IRA — As Biden prepares to head to Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph’s Ciaran Barnes, John Toner and Sharon O’Neill scooped that authorities have disrupted a New Irish Republican Army scheme to distract from his visit with a bomb plot upon the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. “The belief is that the New IRA was planning some sort of attack to coincide with Biden’s visit, similar to the mortar attack on the cops in Strabane last November,” one source told them.

HOT ON THE RIGHT — “GOP embraces a new foreign policy: Bomb Mexico to stop fentanyl,” by Alex Ward: “[I]t illustrates the ways in which frustration with immigration, drug overdose deaths and antipathy towards China are defining the GOP’s larger foreign policy.”



2024 WATCH

THE FRONTRUNNERS’ TIGHTROPE — DeSantis has tried out different approaches in responding to Trump’s criminal indictment as he prepares to challenge the former president for the GOP nomination, lodging some criticism of Trump before backing off. WaPo’s Hannah Knowles, Josh Dawsey and Isaac Arnsdorf go inside the back and forth, reporting that adviser DUSTIN CARMACK suggested he declare he wouldn’t help in a Trump extradition. One source “said DeSantis wasn’t going to be ‘bullied’ [and] expects the governor to push back on Trump more sharply if he runs for president. But this person also expects he will take ‘the high road’ and engage with Trump on policy rather than trade insults and employ name-calling.”

COMING ATTRACTION — “DeSantis to make 1st public appearance in South Carolina,” by AP’s Meg Kinnard: “State Sen. JOSH KIMBRELL told The Associated Press on Sunday that he would host DeSantis for an event on April 19 in Spartanburg, in South Carolina’s heavily Republican Upstate.”

UNDER THE INFLUENCE — “Biden’s digital strategy: an army of influencers,” by Axios’ Sophia Cai: “Biden’s not-yet-official bid for re-election will lean on hundreds of social media ‘influencers’ who will tout Biden’s record — and soon may have their own briefing room at the White House.”


PRIMARY COLORS — The looming Senate GOP primary between West Virginia Gov. JIM JUSTICE and Rep. ALEX MOONEY promises to become the latest proxy battle for various factions of the Republican Party, with major implications for flipping the Senate, NBC’s Allan Smith and Sahil Kapur report. It’s the NRSC, the Senate Leadership Fund and Senate Minority Leader MITCH McCONNELL (who like Justice’s poll numbers against incumbent Dem JOE MANCHIN) vs. the Club for Growth (which likes Mooney’s Freedom Caucus credentials). It “could be one of the most expensive in West Virginia history,” with the Trump X factor looming and some Justice allies worried that the Club’s endorsement is meant to scare him off.

DEMOCRACY WATCH — “Hounded by baseless voter fraud allegations, an entire county’s election staff quits in Virginia,” by NBC’s Jane Timm: “[F]our departures left residents without a functioning registrar’s office; there was no way to register to vote or certify candidate paperwork, at least temporarily. … Years after former President Donald Trump began pushing his lies about stolen elections, communities like Buckingham County are grappling with the aftershocks: What happens when election denialism drives out the people needed to keep local democracy running?”

HAPPENING TODAY — “Nashville council to vote on restoring ousted state lawmaker,” AP: “Nashville’s metro council has called the meeting to address the vacancy left by the expulsion on Thursday of former Rep. JUSTIN JONES. … Expelled Memphis Rep. JUSTIN PEARSON, meanwhile, could be reappointed at a Wednesday meeting of the Shelby County Commission.”

THIS AGAIN — “Trump’s response to criminal charges revives election lies,” by AP’s Michelle Price and Nicholas Riccardi: “Trump has made some version of [his false rigged election claims] in at least 20 social media posts since March 3, the bulk of which occurred in the last two weeks, accelerating when a Manhattan grand jury appeared to be wrapping up its work and preparing to indict the former president.”


FED UP — New to the White House, LAEL BRAINARD is playing a major role behind the scenes in coordinating the response to the recent midsize banking crisis, which has largely managed to stave off broader financial calamity thus far, Ben White reports this morning. But the National Economic Council director is in a somewhat awkward position, having just departed the Fed, where she helped drive interest rates higher. That’s “limiting her ability to publicly challenge the central bank’s actions, given the tradition in which former Fed officials refrain from criticizing onetime colleagues.” And it’s opening Brainard up to criticism that she deserves some blame for not preventing this crisis while at the Fed.

A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR — “White House plans support for drugstores, pharma in abortion pill battle,” by Reuters’ Nandita Bose


INTELLIGENCE DISASTER — The reverberations from the leak of highly classified U.S. intelligence and military documents on social media — one of the most serious in years — kept coming yesterday, as U.S. officials scrambled to deduce the source of the disclosure.

Reuters’ Idrees Ali reports that some experts and officials think it may have come from a domestic source, since a lot of the material would have been available only to Americans. But other possibilities remain, including that the materials were somewhat doctored or that a pro-Russian source leaked them.

In a statement last night, the Pentagon said an interagency effort was underway to evaluate the leaked materials, contain the fallout, work with allies and find the source.

Though it only became widely known Friday, the information actually began to dribble out as far back as January, when top secret files began to appear in a small Discord group, WSJ’s Yaroslav Trofimov, Sharon Weinberger and Robert McMillan report. Eventually they went to larger Discord channels, and by Wednesday — still without the U.S. knowing yet — at least one file made it to “a Russian propaganda account” on the platform.

The stakes are massive, the Journal writes: “The leak is shaping up to be one of the most damaging intelligence breaches in decades, officials said. The disclosure complicates Ukraine’s spring offensive. It will likely inhibit the readiness of foreign allies to share sensitive information with the U.S. government. And it potentially exposes America’s intelligence sources within Russia and other hostile nations.”

Already, various pieces of crucial information are emerging in the press from the leaked documents, along with other fallout:

  • Ukraine’s air defense network, which has proven a critical bulwark against Russia in the war, will need massive reinforcements soon, NYT’s Helene Cooper, Michael Schwirtz and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report, citing the materials and Pentagon officials. Otherwise, “President VLADIMIR V. PUTIN of Russia [could] unleash his lethal fighter jets in ways that could change the course of the war.”
  • In September, Russia almost accidentally shot down a British surveillance plane in Crimea, which could have risked a much wider conflagration involving NATO, WaPo’s Dan Lamothe reports.
  • After the documents showed new depths of U.S. spying on its allies regarding plans for Ukraine, South Korea yesterday downplayed any concerns about the revelation, per Bloomberg.

The documents show just how thoroughly “the US has penetrated the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group, largely through intercepted communications and human sources, which could now be cut off or put in danger,” CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Kylie Atwood warn.


BEYOND EVAN GERSHKOVICH — “WSJ Reporter’s Detention Spotlights the Rise of Arrests by Authoritarian Regimes,” by WSJ’s Vivian Salama and Nancy Youssef: There’s a “growing trend of nations such as Russia and Iran using high-profile American detainees for diplomatic leverage.”


WHAT’S AT STAKE IN TEXAS — “Abortion Ruling Could Undermine the F.D.A.’s Drug-Approval Authority,” by NYT’s Christina Jewett and Pam Belluck: “The decision by a Texas judge appears to be the first time a court has moved toward ordering removal of an approved drug from the market over the objection of the F.D.A. If the initial ruling, a preliminary injunction issued on Friday, withstood appeals, it could open the door to lawsuits to contest approvals or regulatory decisions related to other medications. And if upheld, the Texas decision would shake the very framework of the pharmaceutical industry’s reliance on the F.D.A.’s pathways for developing new drugs, legal experts said.”


HOW IT HAPPENED IN RALEIGH — “Will North Carolina Be the ‘Beginning of the End’ of the Medicaid Expansion Fight?” by NYT’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg: “Lingering reservations about the welfare state and the cost of expansion are giving way to arguments about Medicaid as an engine for economic growth and a lifeline for struggling hospitals.”


FOX SETTLES A DIFFERENT DEFAMATION SUIT — “Fox Corp., Venezuelan Businessman Majed Khalil Reach Settlement in Election Defamation Case,” by Variety’s Brian Steinberg: “The company, which owns Fox News, has reached a confidential agreement to resolve a defamation case levied against it by Venezuelan businessman MAJED KHALIL that alleged Fox News and former host LOU DOBBS had harmed Khalil’s reputation by stating he and three others developed programs and machines to rig the 2020 presidential election.”


NO RULES IN THE ELON ERA — On ELON MUSK’s Twitter, promises of transparency around political advertisements have not been kept, Jessica Piper reveals this morning. From Sen. JOHN FETTERMAN (D-Pa.) to Rep. ELISE STEFANIK (R-N.Y.), promoted political ads are running on the platform without being mentioned in the site’s data. “The lack of disclosure casts doubt on all of the political advertising data released by the platform and makes it hard to assess which groups are using Twitter to fundraise or sway voters ahead of 2024.”

SPEAKING OF WHICH — “Elon Musk’s ad problems,” by Semafor’s Max Tani: “Musk travels to Miami later this month in an effort to mollify advertisers as he grapples with the reality of a traditional, difficult, media business. He will face a tough crowd at the conference of MMA Global, a key digital marketing trade association.”


MOMENT OF WONDER ON ‘60 MINUTES’ — “NASA’s Webb telescope captures new views of stars, galaxies and the early universe,” by CBS’ Scott Pelley


OUT AND ABOUT — SPOTTED at Katy Perry’s Saturday concert at Resorts World Las Vegas to celebrate Ned Price’s (belated) 40th birthday: Adrian Haro, Hazel Cipolle, Ed Shelleby, Eric Schultz, Sean Crotty, Liz Allen and Jeff Marootian.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Mark Alesia, Alexandria Jacobson and David McAfee are joining Raw Story. Alesia and Jacobson will be investigative reporters, and McAfee will be a night editor. Alesia previously was an investigative reporter for the Indianapolis Star. Jacobson previously was published by ABC, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Reporter. McAfee previously was at Bloomberg Law.

Anna Spiegel is joining Axios as an Axios D.C. reporter. She previously was food editor at Washingtonian.

TRANSITIONS — Michael Eisenstatt is now a partner at SP Media Group. He previously was national digital director for campaigns at the DCCC. … Matthew Hittle is starting today with the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee GOP. He previously was a senior policy adviser at Akin Gump. … Maggie Morgan is now a senior associate of retirement and tax policy at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. She previously was senior manager of congressional correspondence and outreach at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Kathryn Lyons, a freelance media and public relations specialist and a CQ Roll Call and FamousDC alum, and Mike Dunkle, a managing director at Riveron Consulting, welcomed Mila Kay Dunkle on March 24.PicAnother pic

— Mandi Merritt Risko, director at FTI Consulting and an RNC alum, and Dan Risko, director at Transfr Inc. and a Trump Commerce alum, welcomed Rocco James Risko on March 24.PicAnother pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Jason Miller … former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh Elizabeth Alexander Ann Marie Hauser of the Hudson Institute … Josh Shultz … CNN’s Antoine SanfuentesCarter YangSamantha Dravis of Clout Public Affairs … Bradley Saull … POLITICO’s Alice Miranda Ollstein, Adam Behsudi, Gigi Ewing and Elyse Waterman Jon Sallet … BGR Group’s Mark TavlaridesRay ZaccaroShelley GreenspanLeela Najafi of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office … Chris LydonJessica Mackler … NBC’s Gary GrumbachHoward GantmanDale Thorenson of Gordley Associates … Hanna Rosin … Shef’s Amy Dudley Areig Elhag of Middle East Broadcasting Networks … Our Body Politic’s Bridget Mulcahy McAllister Jeffrey Frank Melinda HennebergerAnn Klenk Tyler Dever of Rep. Keith Self’s (R-Texas) office

Send Playbookers tips to [email protected] or text us at 202-556-3307. Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike DeBonis, deputy editor Zack Stanton and producers Setota Hailemariam and Bethany Irvine.

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