December 11, 2023

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Playbook: China deflates Biden’s SOTU swagger

With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross

THE WEEK AHEAD — Tomorrow: President JOE BIDEN’s State of the Union address … House Financial Services Committee hearing on the economic threat from China … House Oversight Committee hearing on the southwest border …Fed Chair JEROME POWELL speaks to the Economic Club of Washington …

Wednesday: Biden travels to Madison, Wis., to discuss the economy and job creation … House Oversight Committee hearing on “Twitter’s Role in Suppressing the Biden Story” … 77th annual Washington Press Club Foundation congressional dinner …

Thursday: Biden travels to Tampa, Fla., to discuss protecting Social Security and Medicare … National Governors Association winter meeting begins … Friday: Biden welcomes governors to the White House …Biden meets with Brazil President LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVASaturday: Biden hosts a black-tie dinner for governors.

BALLOON FLOATS OVER SOTU — When Biden ascends the House rostrum tomorrow to deliver his State of the Union address, the buzz will hover tens of thousands of feet higher, where a Chinese surveillance balloon floated until it was shot down Saturday off the South Carolina coast.

It’s a distraction Democrats aren’t exactly thrilled about. They’ve been hoping Biden could use the biggest bully pulpit of them all to tout their legislative victories of the past two years — moving to cut prescription drug prices, combat climate change, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, tighten gun laws and protect same-sex marriage. They’re also eager for Biden to highlight a resilient economy and paint a sharp contrast with Hill Republicans while millions of voters tune in to watch.

And yet, thanks to the balloon saga, it’s the GOP that’s relishing the chance to differentiate itself this week. Republicans have spent days casting Biden as weak on China and suggesting he was too slow to confront foreign spying on American soil. As of last night, House GOP leaders were still entertaining holding a vote before the speech chiding the administration’s response.

Also speaking out is Senate Minority Leader MITCH McCONNELL, who tends to take a measured tone on national security matters. Not so this time: “We should not have let the People’s Republic of China make a mockery of our airspace,” he said in a statement yesterday afternoon. “President Biden missed the opportunity to defend our sovereignty, send a message of strength, and bolster deterrence.”

Democrats are dismissing the GOP flak as political opportunism that is at odds with the facts. Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER said Sunday waiting for the balloon to reach water was “the right call” — one that both protected Americans from falling debris and “maximized our intel gain” by allowing for deeper analysis of the technology involved.

Administration officials pointed out over the weekend that at least three such balloons flew inside U.S. territory during DONALD TRUMP’s presidency. That claim, however, has set off a public feud with Trump intelligence officials.

Fox News’ Brooke Singman scooped that two former national security advisers, JOHN BOLTON and ROBERT O’BRIEN, said they never heard about any such overflight — nor did former DNI JOHN RATCLIFFE, former acting DNI RIC GRENELL and others. Trump himself told Fox the incidents “never happened.”

Indeed, a Biden administration official acknowledged yesterday that Chinese balloon flights were “discovered after the prior administration left,” WSJ’s Vivian Salama and Michael Gordon scooped, and said the current administration would brief the previous administration’s officials on the incursions.

More briefings — and more partisan sparring — are coming. Administration officials will brief the “Gang of Eight” congressional leaders as soon as this week, and Schumer yesterday announced a classified briefing for all senators on Feb. 15.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Rep. CORI BUSH (D-Mo.) is inviting MICHAEL BROWN SR. as her guest to the State of the Union. The death of his son, MICHAEL BROWN, in Ferguson, Mo., contributed to the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Bush told Playbook: “The police killing of Michael Brown in 2014 is what propelled me and many others into lives dedicated to building a world where Mike would still be here with us — a world where his life could not be taken from him. A world where TYRE NICHOLS and the thousands of other Black people killed by police could live long, healthy lives full of joy.”

More pre-SOTU reads:“For Biden, a Chance for a Fresh Start in a New Era of Divided Government,”by NYT’s Peter Baker … “Biden Prepares for State of the Union Speech as China Tensions, Job Gains Take Center Stage,”by WSJ’s Alex Leary and Ken Thomas … “Biden’s State of the Union to tout policy wins on economy,”by AP’s Zeke Miller and Seung Min Kim … “ChatGPT bot channels history to pen State of Union speech,” by AP’s Calvin Woodward and Josh Boak

Good Monday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Paging all lawmakers: Drop us a line about who you intend to bring to the SOTU and why: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

MEGADONOR SPOTLIGHT — Our POLITICO colleagues are out this morning with a pair of buzzy profiles of influential megadonors whose deep pockets and behind-the-scenes machinations are shaping politics in America.

1. TILL DEATH (OR POLITICS) DO US PARTAlex Isenstadt takes a look at the married-couple megadonors who personify the GOP civil war: LIZ and DICK UIHLEIN. Alex’s lede perfectly illustrates how the husband-and-wife duo diverge on the future of the party: Hours after Liz, who has spent millions backing establishment-wing figures, endorsed RONNA McDANIEL to continue leading the RNC, Dick, who’s poured his own funds into far-right primary challengers and insurgent groups, unveiled his support for HARMEET DHILLON.

It wasn’t the first time, per Alex: “After Liz Uihlein came out in support of former Lt. Gov. REBECCA KLEEFISCH in the 2022 Wisconsin governor’s race, Dick Uihlein released a public statement praising rival KEVIN NICHOLSON as an ‘outsider’ who ‘can shake things up.’ And while Dick bankrolled bomb-throwing conservative JOSH MANDEL in last year’s Ohio Senate primary, Liz financed two other candidates — one of whom, JANE TIMKEN, was the former state party chairwoman.”

How do they manage? Alex indulges our curiosity: “Those close to the Uihleins say they have a warm and affectionate marriage, despite their differences over politics. Friends say their personalities complement one another: She is outgoing and engaging, he more quiet and reserved, and sometimes prickly.”

2. L.A.’s SHADOW MAYOR? —Chris Cadelago has a deep dive on Hollywood mogul and Democratic megadonor JEFFREY KATZENBERG, who made elections in Los Angeles his biggest priority in 2022. Katzenberg, he reports, was motivated by the city’s spike in homelessness and sought to back a mayoral candidate who viewed the matter as a humanitarian crisis, not a law enforcement problem.

Turns out, he’s not afraid to throw some elbows. Katzenberg, who backed then-Rep. KAREN BASS for the position, delivered a stern in-person warning to RICK CARUSO, a real estate tycoon also running for the job, Chris writes: “If Caruso took the high road, Katzenberg said that he would, too. But, ‘If you take the low road,’ a person familiar with the conversation recounted, ‘I’m going lower.’”

Bass, who won, delivered for Katzenberg, too: “Her first act as mayor was to declare a state of emergency on homelessness.”

Chris adds: “His support for Bass and other local candidates has prompted a question among the political class in L.A. — and as far away as Washington, D.C.: Is he positioning himself to become a shadow mayor of the city?”



SYSTEM OF A DOWN — WSJ’s Doug Cameron and Michael Gordon have more details on how the U.S. actually shot down the balloon: “The take down was the first ‘kill’ for the F-22, the Air Force’s premier air-to-air fighter, and the first time a U.S. warplane has destroyed a target by firing from such a high altitude, said the Air Force.”

DOWN IN THE WATER — After the U.S. shot the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina, Navy divers began a dayslong effort to find debris, defense officials said, per NYT’s Helene Cooper and Edward Wong. They’re seeking whatever they can find to provide intelligence value to various U.S. agencies.

THE POLITICS OF CHINA — The past several days have shown just how eagerly both Republicans and Democrats want to be seen as tough on China, Adam Cancryn and Chris Cadelago report. From insistent GOP criticisms to Biden’s major show of force in downing the balloon, the one-upmanship highlighted the political upside of taking on Beijing.

THE VIEW FROM BEIJING — The balloon brouhaha left China without many good options, as it reacted with defensiveness, surprise, veiled threats and a bit of regret, NYT’s Chris Buckley reports. After the events delayed a meeting between Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN and Chinese President XI JINPING, the response “suggested that Chinese leaders were baffled that those planned talks in Beijing had been upstaged by what they described as an innocent mistake.”

China’s statements yesterday “were brief and conveyed a tone less strident than in recent diplomatic standoffs with Washington such as those involving U.S. engagement with Taiwan,” note WSJ’s Chun Han Wong, James Areddy and Sha Hua.


JUST POSTED — NYT’s Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Katie Rogers and Peter Baker take a look into VP Kamala Harris’ struggles to carve out a niche for herself ahead of the 2024 presidential election, noting that “Through much of the fall, a quiet panic set in among key Democrats about what would happen if President Biden opted not to run for a second term. Most Democrats interviewed, who insisted on anonymity to avoid alienating the White House, said flatly that they did not think Ms. Harris could win the presidency in 2024. Some said the party’s biggest challenge would be finding a way to sideline her without inflaming key Democratic constituencies that would take offense. Now with Mr. Biden appearing all but certain to run again, the concern over Ms. Harris has shifted to whether she will be a political liability for the ticket.”

DEMOCRACY WATCH — New Republican secretaries of state who swept into office on baseless claims about tackling election fraud have been slow to actually make major changes, AP’s Tom Davies, Christina Cassidy and Mead Gruver report from Indianapolis, Atlanta and Cheyenne, Wyo. The mixed results are due in part to skepticism or resistance from other Republicans in statehouses.

BATTLE FOR THE STATES — Former GOP Rep. MARK WALKER is weighing a bid for North Carolina governor, Bryan Anderson reports. Our colleague Natalie Allison notes the interesting contrast that would draw with Lt. Gov. MARK ROBINSON, seen as the GOP frontrunner: “1. Mark Robinson has baggage and is already being compared to HERSCHEL WALKER, and 2. Robinson effectively backstabbed his friend Mark Walker when he endorsed TED BUDD in last year’s Senate primary.”

SBF 180 — FTX, SAM BANKMAN-FRIED’s bankrupt cryptocurrency company, yesterday asked politicians and political action funds to return its donations by Feb. 28. “The announcement escalates a fight over as much as $93 million (according to the debtors’ estimates) in political donations FTX made to an array of D.C. lawmakers and causes across the political spectrum,” CoinDesk’s Danny Nelson writes.


CENTER COURT — “Congressional centrists plot deal-cutting course in divided government,” by Burgess Everett: Speaking from the No Labels policy conference in Florida this weekend, Sens. SUSAN COLLINS (R-Maine) and JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) “said their work would not halt just because it may be tougher to convince McCarthy’s majority to take up legislation. They did admit that their work might look a bit different this Congress.” Collins said centrists “must also be prepared to keep the government funded and raise the debt ceiling if McCarthy and President Joe Biden can’t come to an agreement.”

Related Read:“As debt ceiling talks kick off, Schumer fights to stay at center,” by WaPo’s Liz Goodwin

DOCU-DRAMA — Officials have told congressional leaders they can brief legislators on the status of the investigations into classified documents found in Biden’s and Trump’s possession, AP’s Nomaan Merchant, Michael Balsamo and Eric Tucker report. “A briefing could come as soon as this week. But it may not meet demands from lawmakers who want to review the documents.”

INTERESTING SHIFT — Half of the 60 Black lawmakers in Congress this year represent plurality-white districts — a major change from the days when Black members largely were elected in districts designed for representation, Axios’ Josh Kraushaar reports. The group includes five Republicans. “Partisanship is a powerful driving factor in politics today, sometimes more than race,” Kraushaar notes.

CLICKER — “Gut spending? Slash the IRS budget? 7 GOP ideas for debt limit talks,” by WaPo’s Jeff Stein


DIFFERENCE MAKER — Trump is hoping to distinguish himself in the 2024 GOP presidential field as a foreign policy dove, Natalie Allison, Meridith McGraw and Gary Fineout report this morning. From Afghanistan to Ukraine, Trump wants to cast his skepticism of involvement in foreign wars as a “peace president,” drawing a contrast with his former foreign policy leaders NIKKI HALEY and MIKE POMPEO.

LAST NIGHT ON ‘60 MINUTES’ — “Mark Pomerantz on investigating Donald Trump,”by CBS’ Bill Whitaker


THE NEXT ABORTION BATTLE? — Some abortion rights proponents are worrying — and warning the Biden administration — that a legal challenge to the FDA’s 2000 approval of the abortion drug mifepristone could succeed, WaPo’s Caroline Kitchener and Perry Stein report. Though revoking the authorization “has been widely ridiculed by legal experts as rooted in baseless and debunked arguments,” the lawsuit filed in Texas could have a straight shot through the legal system in the hands of conservative judges.


IMMIGRATION FILES — The Biden administration’s new program for would-be immigrants from several countries, which provides a speedy online portal to request parole with an acquaintance’s sponsorship in the U.S., has gone over like gangbusters with many Cubans, AP’s Andrea Rodríguez reports from Havana. Some can now make it to the U.S. in just one week and can stay for two years, though it has provoked bitterness among those who sacrificed to journey through Central America.


STAT OF THE DAY — Here’s a number that should scare the Biden White House: Forty-one percent of Americans say their personal finances have gotten worse since he took office, per a new ABC/WaPo poll — the highest that survey has ever measured going back 37 years.


BIPARTISAN PUSH — “More Money for Mental-Health Programs Gets Bipartisan Support in Many States,”by WSJ’s Dan Frosch: “The budget proposals seek to address the nationwide scarcity of mental-health workers, the mental-health needs in schools and growing demand for emergency services. They represent a rare bipartisan point of agreement for more government action and underscore how dire many think the problem has become.”

MISINFORMATION MISHEGOSS — “Inside Harvard’s misinformation meltdown,”by Semafor’s Ben Smith and Louise Matsakis: “[JOAN DONOVAN’s] departure is tangled up in the arguments over whether misinformation is an academic pursuit or a partisan one, and it played out inside a cautious, American institution trying to hold a shrinking political center.”


EXIT INTERVIEW — “Biden’s Top Covid Adviser Wishes He Had Tangled with Tucker Carlson,”by Adam Cancryn in POLITICO Magazine: “In his first extended interview since leaving government a few weeks ago, [DAVID] KESSLER lamented the politicization of the vaccines, arguing that the Trump administration deserves more credit for developing the shots in record time and criticizing those on the right who ‘inject doubt’ over their effectiveness. Yet he also conceded that the government made damaging mistakes at critical junctures, and that only feeds the charlatans.”

Jill Biden presented Song of the Year and Best Song for Social Change at the Grammys.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was involved in a traffic accident in LA.

Andrew Solenderlost his wheels.

Gisele Barreto Fetterman found an unexpected connection to “90 Day Fiancé.”

IN MEMORIAM — “Harry Whittington, longtime Texas GOP supporter shot by Dick Cheney in a hunting accident, dies,”by The Texas Tribune’s Sneha Dey

OUT AND ABOUT —SPOTTED at Adrienne Elrod’s Sweet 16 (112 in human years) party for her dog Bernie at Erika Gudmundson’s house in Columbia Heights yesterday (pic): Mika Brzezinski, Jackie Alemany and Jake Levine with Bertha, Ali Rubin with Lilly, Rachel Levitan, Greg Hale and Mica Strother with Pippa and Brin, Lily Adams,Phil Rucker with Axel, Alexandra Phillips, Alex Hornbrook, Robyn Bash, Ashley Allison and Matt Mazonkey.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Natalie Gould is now a comms associate at Feldman Strategies. She most recently was deputy press secretary for former Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s reelect.

MEDIA MOVE —Jay Solomon is joining Semafor as global security editor. He’s a former chief foreign correspondent for the WSJ.

TRANSITIONS — Former Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) is joining Arnold & Porter’s legislative and public policy practice as a senior policy adviser. … Chris Taylor is now senior comms adviser for the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and recently launched Civil, a comms and public affairs agency. He most recently was national press secretary at the DCCC. … Charlotte Robertson is now digital director for Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.). She previously was digital director for Abby Finkenauer’s Iowa Senate campaign, and is an Evan McMullin alum. …

Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) announced his senior staff: Matt Miltenberger as chief of staff, Alyssa Burleson as deputy chief of staff for administration, Joanna Rodriguez as comms director, Paul Guaglianone as legislative director and Ame McGraw as director of scheduling. … Kye Laughter is now press secretary for Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-N.C.). He most recently was press secretary for Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.). … Aria Kovalovich is now a researcher at the Senate Budget Committee under Chair Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). She previously was a professional staff member on the House Oversight Committee for subcommittee Chair Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

ENGAGED — Elizabeth Gibson, senior director at Bullpen Strategy Group, and Patrick O’Connor, executive director for corporate relations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, got engaged Saturday before meeting close friends and family at Tunnicliff’s, one of their favorite local bars. They met after one of Elizabeth’s colleagues set them up on a blind date. Pic

— Jake Wilkins, associate director of comms at Axios, proposed to Lauren French, deputy chief of staff to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and a Joe Crowley alum, on Friday at The Betsy, where they went on one of their first dates. They celebrated with friends at The Wells. PicAnother picSPOTTED:Anna Palmer, Igor Bobic, LouisNelson,Val Chicola, Caroline Anderegg, John Bresnahan, Eli Yokley and Evan Hollander, Conner Swanson, Aaron Weber, Sean Dugan, Ali Vitali, Haley Talbot, Kelley Hudak, Corey Jacobson, Michaela Sundermann, Hannah Muldavin, Kate Keating, Paul Kane and Kristin Wilson, Kevin Casey, Betsy Klein, Kristen Holmes and Noah Gray.

WEEKEND WEDDING — Matt Mackowiak, a GOP operative who runs the boutique PR firm Potomac Strategy Group, and Amy Sowa, a speech therapist who works with kids, got married at the Citadel Beach Club in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday night. They met at a political event in Austin and were matched by friends. PicSPOTTED:Ford and Sarah O’Connell, Tom and Kendra Wharton, Bob and Mary Lou McGee, and Bill Briggs.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Nelson Bunn, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, and Trevor Pearson, energy policy advisor at APCO Worldwide and a Martha McSally alum, welcomed Hardy Joanne Pearson on Jan. 19. She came in at 7 lbs, 5 oz and 19 inches. PicAnother pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) and Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) … … Indiana Dem Chair Mike Schmuhl … Fox News’ Kevin Corke … WaPo’s Jenna Johnson … GMMB’s Annie Burns Tiffany Cross … CBS’ Fernando SuarezClay Helton C. Boyden Gray … DNC’s Daniel Wessel … White House’s Evan Wessel and Chris SlevinJerry Seib Amanda Fuchs Miller of Sen. Brian Schatz’s (D-Hawaii) office … Missayr BokerTommy BrownClaire Standaert, who just started as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s speechwriter … Todd AbrajanoLloyd Grove … POLITICO’s Alina Strileckis, Julie Williams, Kenia Zelaya and Collins Chinyanta Malcom Glenn Helaine Klasky of Activision Blizzard … Rebecca Cooper Martin Pengelly … Democracy for the Arab World Now’s Raed Jarrar Ken Lisaius … U.S. Travel Association’s Tori Barnes Jacquie BloomTom Brokaw

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