With help from Maggie Miller
HE’S RUNNING? — Presidential campaigns do not start in any definitive way. The 2024 race had “already begun” last June, or was it March, or even before the last election, back in the fall of 2020. Turn up at a Lincoln Day dinner in Portsmouth or Des Moines, and you’ll feast on a smorgasbord of “flirts with, “teases,” “kick[s] the tires” and other “unofficial start[s]” to a presidential campaign.
But every four years, there is a moment when the two political parties and the news media decide to stop daydreaming about the next one and jump right in. And sometime during this week’s pundit wish-casting about the Democratic 2024 ticket and the GOP’s threatened debate boycott, between the deconstruction of Mike Pompeo’s weight loss and the run-up to Donald Trump’s first rally of the year, on Saturday, it happened.
Ten months before the 2022 midterm elections, Washington’s head is firmly in 2024.
The proximate cause of the shift in perspective, as so often happens, is Trump.
The 45th president plainly has not suffered from his banishment from social media or — as next week’s one-year anniversary of Joe Biden’s inauguration approaches — his loss of the bully pulpit.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and an early handicappers’ favorite in the Republican primary field, delivered a State of the State address Tuesday that CNN called his “first 2024 speech,” only to be overshadowed by the former president. Trump kicked DeSantis, implicitly, in an interview with the right-wing One America News Network, belittling “gutless” politicians who refuse to say if they’ve received a Covid booster shot.
Then came Trump’s hang-up on NPR and his release of his All-Star roster of election truthers who will join him for his Saturday rally in Arizona, including the state’s leading Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake, who has said she would not have certified the 2020 election results, and Mike Lindell, the pillow salesman who thinks he has “enough evidence to put everybody in prison for life, 300-and-some million people.” (He does not.)
The attention Trump gobbled up was a reminder — to DeSantis and any other potential Republican candidate — that he has not lost his gift for drawing attention. The nomination seems almost certainly his if he wants it. The Republican National Committee is preparing for 2024 by remaining hard at work on Trump’s grievances. In a reopening of Trump’s 2020 feud with the Commission on Presidential Debates, the RNC said this week it plans to amend its rules to prohibit future presidential nominees from participating in commission-sponsored debates.
Trump is the reason, primarily, that many Democrats are losing their minds over 2024, too. Biden’s public approval ratings are dismal, and Democrats fear that if Trump runs again, as is widely expected, he could win a rematch.
“All anyone can talk about is Trump — donors, policy folks, party insiders, the media,” one adviser to major Democratic Party donors told Nightly. “It’s a weird cycle, where Dems want to talk about anything but Trump, but the conversation keeps coming back to Trump. Everything that the Dems do is viewed as bad, then compared to Trump, then analyzed to see how the GOP will run against it in the midterms, then how Trump will run against what the Dems did on the heels of a GOP wave in ’22.”
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CARROTS AND STICKS — Cybersecurity reporter Maggie Miller emails Nightly:
After weeks of warning that Russia may use cyberattacks as part of its efforts in Ukraine, Moscow gave a clear demonstration today of its ability to both wreak havoc and do good in cyberspace.
According to Ukrainian authorities, 70 government websites were hacked and defaced overnight, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Treasury Service. While formal attribution has not been made, early indicators point to Moscow, which is massing troops on the border of Ukraine.
The timing for the attack was even more suspect, as it occurred the same day the Russian Federal Security Service announced it had seized hundreds of thousands of dollars and detained members of the notorious REvil ransomware group. The hacking organization has been linked to the attacks last year on meat producer JBS and IT company Kaseya, and the Biden administration has put pressure on Moscow to act against this group and others that often do not face consequences in Russia.
Taken together, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have been giving a preview to the United States of the cybersecurity penalties of conflict with Russia — and possible benefits that could come from improved relations.
“We had two signaling events from Russia over the past 48 hours,” Mark Montgomery, senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “The stronger one was the cyberattacks on Ukrainian government sites … This signal was: Look what happens when we don’t get along. The second signal was the takedown of REvil, which signaled: Look what happens when we do get along.”
Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) was also pessimistic about the timing.
“While the Russian government has finally taken steps to address the significant and devastating cybercrime that originates from within its borders, it’s hard to ignore that this belated action comes at the same time that Russian actors have reported stepped up cyber-attacks on Ukraine, in the context of a wider set of provocations and aggressiveness from Moscow,” Warner said in a statement provided to POLITICO.
The track record: Two days before Christmas 2015, around a quarter million Ukrainians lost power in the dead of winter for several hours when Russian hackers compromised multiple Ukrainian energy stations.
Even more devastating was an attack two years later, when the NotPetya malware virus was released, impacting Ukrainian banks, government agencies, and even the radiation monitoring systems at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
In light of Russia’s previous attacks, Ukraine has strengthened its cyber defense capabilities, and many of the websites impacted were back up within hours. The Ukrainian Cyber Police, along with the State Special Service and Security Service, put out a statement emphasizing that no data was stolen, and that the hackers likely used “the infrastructure of a commercial company” to access the websites.
Negotiations as background: The White House is even more likely to be keeping a close eye on developments in Ukraine around cyberattacks in the wake of months of negotiations between Biden administration officials and Moscow.
The level of dialogue increased following the meeting in Geneva last year between Biden and Putin, during which Biden urged him to crack down on cybercriminal groups, such as REvil, and handed him a list of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors that were off-limits to attacks.
While talks have been ongoing since the summit, until today, Russia had not made significant public progress in taking actions against hackers that often face little pushback from Russian authorities, with some top officials hinting at the pressing need for more effort.
— Biden admin to start offering free at-home Covid tests on Wednesday: The Biden administration will begin making free at-home Covid-19 tests available through a government website starting Jan. 19 — but the public may have to wait a week or longer to receive them. Households will be able to order four tests at a time through the website COVIDTests.gov and the tests will “typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering,” according to a fact sheet.
— Top Ohio court strikes down state’s gerrymandered congressional map: Ohio’s state Supreme Court has struck down the state’s new congressional map as a Republican gerrymander that violates the state constitution. The ruling is a boon to Democrats, who could have held as few as two of the state’s 15 House seats after the next election.
— Zuckerberg and Google CEO approved deal to carve up ad market, states allege in court: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai personally approved a secret deal that gave the social network a leg up in the search giant’s online advertising auctions, attorneys for Texas and other states alleged in newly unsealed court filings. The 2018 deal gave Facebook possibly unlawful advantages when the social network used Google’s advertising exchange, according to allegations by Texas, 14 other states and Puerto Rico in the latest version of their federal antitrust suit against Google.
— Biden moves to remake the Fed: Biden’s latest nominations to the Federal Reserve Board mark a major victory for lawmakers and other diversity advocates who have long pushed for new voices at the world’s most powerful central bank. Biden today tapped two Black economists — Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson — for open seats on the board. He also named Sarah Bloom Raskin, an aggressive regulator and former Fed governor, for the top job overseeing the nation’s banks, which would make her the first woman to hold that post.
IRAN DEAL OPTIMISM? DEPENDS WHO YOU ASK — EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said today he was optimistic about an Iran nuclear deal being struck within “the next few weeks” amid warnings that the window for reaching an agreement is closing fast, Hans von der Burchard writes.
Iran and the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have spent months trying to resurrect the original Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was thrown into jeopardy when Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018. Even though there was optimism last year that a new deal could be reached, talks failed to yield a breakthrough and by Christmas the situation was essentially back to where it had been at the beginning of summer.
Yet today, Borrell said that the most recent talks had seen some progress. “The atmosphere has improved since Christmas,” he told reporters following an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in the French city of Brest. “I was pessimistic prior to that but now I think we can reach an agreement.”
Speaking alongside Borrell, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was “vital” that negotiations “succeed,” but he sounded less optimistic as he warned that the speed of negotiations was not sufficient.
SPECIAL DELIVERY — Package delivery giant FedEx wants to equip some of its aircraft with military-style missile countermeasures, which could allow it to continue flying over contested areas that might otherwise be closed to air traffic, according to a filing posted by the Federal Aviation Administration, Oriana Pawlyk writes.
In a notice of this “special condition” posted today, the FAA dryly observed that its design standards for commercial cargo planes “did not envisage that a design feature could project infrared laser energy outside the airplane” and therefore it sought special approval for this “novel design feature.” The proposed infrared laser system is intended to fool missiles fired from the ground.
“In recent years, in several incidents abroad, civilian aircraft were fired upon by man-portable air defense systems,” FAA said in its filing. “The FedEx missile-defense system directs infrared laser energy toward an incoming missile, in an effort to interrupt the missile’s tracking of the aircraft’s heat.”
When tensions in contested regions rise, the FAA tends to restrict civilian air traffic around those areas, forcing them to fly less-direct routes that cost more in time and fuel burn.
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