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January 11, 2019

On Thursday, the House passed two bills to fund the shuttered Departments of Agriculture, Transportation, and House and Urban Development (HUD) for the rest of the fiscal year, once again providing no funding for President Trump's border wall. Twelve Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for the Transportation-HUD bill, which passed 244-180, while 10 bucked the White House to reopen the Agriculture Department and ensure funding for food stamps. On Wednesday, eight Republicans voted for a clean bill to reopen the Treasury Department and IRS, and the week before, measures to reopen all departments but Homeland Security (DHS) got seven GOP votes and a wall-less DHS funding bill drew five GOP votes.

The steady uptick in Republicans breaking with Trump suggests "that pressure is mounting on the GOP to do something to end the 20-day stalemate," Axios says. But pressure only goes so far. Earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked Senate votes on last week's House bills to reopen the government, calling the Democratic maneuver "absolutely pointless show votes." Democrats pointed out that the Senate overwhelmingly passed nearly identical bills in December, before Trump said he'd veto any bill without wall funding. Peter Weber

8:35 a.m.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament got started Wednesday night, with the "First Four" games to set the full field of 64 teams when March Madness kicks off in earnest on Thursday. Arizona State beat St. John's, 74-64, bouncing back from a late-season slide. The Sun Devils, a No. 11 seed, move on to face Buffalo, seeded 6 in their bracket, in the round of 64. The North Dakota State Bison beat the North Carolina Central Eagles, 78-74. The Bisons' junior guard Tyson Ward led all scorers with 23 points. North Dakota moves on to face the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils next, on Friday. Harold Maass

8:30 a.m.

"Two years ago, some of America's largest corporations were tearing up their business plans to accommodate President Trump, fearful that he could send their shareholders and customers fleeing with a tweet," The New York Times notes. "Now they have a new strategy: Ignore him."

Right before he took office, for example, Trump hectored Carrier into (at least temporarily) keeping 1,000 jobs in Indiana it has planned to outsource. Companies hired public relations firms to monitor Trump's twitter feed and come up with strategies should he shoot a poison tweet their way. This week he told General Motors to reopen a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and GM shrugged and issued a statement that talked about negotiating with the United Auto Workers and didn't mention Trump.

"In the beginning, his tweets would actually hurt stock prices and companies were going into tailspins," Eric Dezenhall, an expert in corporate damage control, told the Times. "There is a clinical difference between what was happening in the beginning and what is happening now." That difference. "Tantrum congestion," he said. In fact, PR firms are urging restraint for the clients because any response could agitate Trump.

Essentially, the Times reports, "the president's scattershot attention span has diminished his power to persuade the business world to bend to his will, corporate communications experts say, as once fearsome tweet storms have devolved into ephemeral annoyances." Trump can still move markets with a tweet about trade with China or the Federal Reserve, for now, the Times adds, but despite "Trump's vast media presence and his popularity among Republicans, he has not demonstrated the ability to do lasting damage to a corporate brand that crosses him." You can read more about Trump's diminishing Twitter returns at The New York Times. Peter Weber

8:01 a.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden hasn't even announced a 2020 presidential campaign yet, but he might already have a running mate in mind.

Biden's advisers are considering the idea of pledging to pick former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who lost the close 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election to Brian Kemp, as his running mate upon launching his campaign, Axios reports.

CNN had reported on Monday that Biden was considering selecting a running mate early, and Abrams' name came immediately to mind, especially because Biden and Abrams met last week, although CNN reports they didn't "formally" discuss the idea of her serving as vice president.

The thinking behind this pick would be to show that Biden "isn't just another old white guy," a source told Axios. Abrams was the first black woman to be a major party's nominee for governor. She's also more than three decades younger than Biden.

Still, some advisers are reportedly opposed to the idea, recognizing that it would be seen as a gimmick, Axios reports. It's unclear how Biden himself feels about the plan. Meanwhile, The New York Times is also reporting that Abrams is being considered as an early choice for running mate, with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former congressman Beto O'Rourke being other possibilities "if their campaigns appear to flag in the coming months."

It's unusual for a presidential candidate to announce their pick for vice president before they've even locked up the nomination, though it did famously happen in 2016. In April 2016, three months before the Republican National Convention, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his running mate pick in what was seen as a last-ditch effort to give his campaign a boost. Cruz dropped out of the race a week later. Brendan Morrow

7:05 a.m.

"Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was more recognizable to a focus group of Wisconsin swing voters than every Democratic presidential prospect except Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren," Alexi McCammond reports at Axios, citing a focus group last week of 12 voters. The freshman Democrat from New York "has only been in Congress for a few months, yet she's breaking through even in rural areas of the Midwest. It's not a great start for the 2020 Democrats who aren't recognizable at all in Wisconsin, a key battleground state, despite all the national attention they're getting."

But it makes some sense. Ocasio-Cortez has excited young progressives and struck fascinated terror in Fox News pundits and conservative activists. "So, with AOC — as I call her, to save time — raising so many questions, I thought it was time to let members of my staff ask her questions of their own," Stephen Colbert said on Wednesday's Late Show.

In response to Late Show staff questions, Ocasio-Cortez explained how Medicare-or-all would work, named the one thing she'd change about Washington ("I think I'd make everyone relax a little bit more"), threw shade at questioner Molly Ringwald, and fielded a question about whether she has anything in common with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), blocker of all legislation Ocasio-Cortez holds dear. "Yeah," she responded, "we both have an awkward relationship with Mitch McConnell." Ouch. Peter Weber

6:21 a.m.

Three days before he was publicly charged with soliciting prostitution at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida, billionaire financier John Childs cut two checks worth $50,000 to the Republican National Committee, Politico reports, citing February campaign finance disclosures. The RNC did not respond to Politico's request for comment, and Childs has previously denied soliciting prostitution.

The most famous figure caught up in the prostitution sting, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, meanwhile, rejected a plea deal Wednesday that would have kept him out of jail in return for admitting he would have been found guilty, performing 100 hours of community service, and taking a course on why prostitution is harmful, CNN reports. Also on Wednesday, attorneys for Kraft and more than a dozen other defendants in the case filed a motion to keep under seal surveillance video allegedly showing Kraft and others in paid sex acts; Florida does not agree with the motion.

Kraft is a longtime friend of President Trump, and Trump wants to invite him to the White House with the Patriots this spring to celebrate New England's Super Bowl championship, Politico reports, adding that White House aides are worried inviting Kraft "could turn a feel-good photo op into an embarrassing media spectacle."

The RNC — whose former national finance chairman Steve Wynn resigned last year after reports of sexual misconduct with employees — ended February with $31.1 million cash on hand after raising $14.6 million last month; the Democratic National Committee raised $6.5 million and finished the month with $7.5 million cash and $4.6 million in debt. Peter Weber

4:58 a.m.

The Democratic presidential field is large and growing, and The Late Show tried to break it down Wednesday with a March Madness bracket.

With 2020 slowly approaching, "the Democrats have narrowed their choices down to everyone," Stephen Colbert said in his monologue. There are so many candidates running that those "without a signature hair style, they've been experimenting with signature issues." Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, wants to eliminate the Electoral College. The audience at Warren's town hall loved the idea, Colbert said, "but come on, if you get rid of the Electoral College, you turn the election into some kind of popularity contest."

Joe Biden, meanwhile, "still needs something to stand out," Colbert said. "One option he's reportedly considering is actually running for president. Another is selecting a running mate early. It is adorable that Joe Biden thinks the thing everyone really cares about is who the vice president is gonna be." And Andrew Yang has found his issue, he said, taking "a public stand that he wants to keep male genitals intact. I can see the yard sings now: Andrew Yang for a Better Wang."

"If you're having trouble keeping track of everyone in this guess-who game of candidates, don't worry, we are here to break it down for you," Samantha Bee said on Full Frontal. Pete Buttigieg, for example, would "seem like a great candidate, but his own husband has revealed something incredibly damning: Pete Buttigieg is a Hufflepuff," she said. "Listen, no one wants to be a Hufflepuff. ... All Hufflepuffs are narcs."

Of the 16 candidates, "15 will lose while one, let's be honest, will also probably lose and we'll be stuck with this toilet monster for another four years," Bee said. "So tonight, I'm announcing that I, too, am running ... far away, because this campaign is already exhausting and it makes me want to hide in a hole." There's some NSFW language. Watch below. Peter Weber

4:01 a.m.

The remarkably lenient plea deal Jeffrey Epstein reached with federal prosecutors is the best-known case involving the millionaire financier's history of paying underage girls for sex, but one of Epstein's alleged victims also sued one of his alleged enablers, Ghislaine Maxwell. That case was settled before trial for an undisclosed sum in 2017, but U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet had "accepted almost all filings in the case under seal, without specific orders justifying the secrecy." Three parties sued to have the files unsealed, and on Tuesday night, "two mystery litigants" objected, Politico reports.

Since Sweet declined to unseal the files, the U.S. 2nd Court of Appeals is deciding the fate of the documents submitted to court and Sweet's sealed ruling. "Just prior to a court-imposed deadline Tuesday, two anonymous individuals surfaced to object to the unsealing," arguing "they could face unwarranted speculation and embarrassment if the court makes public records from the suit," Politico reports. In the lawsuit, Virginia Giuffre accused Maxwell of sex trafficking by allegedly facilitating Epstein's sexual interactions with teenage girls; Maxwell denied the charge.

One of the requests to quash the unsealing was filed on behalf of "John Doe" by Manhattan-based lawyer Nick Lewin and the other by Washington-based attorney Kerrie Campbell on behalf of "J. Doe." The three parties who had requested the files be unsealed were the Miami Herald, alt-right social media personality Mike Cernovich, and prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who said several of the sealed records would disprove allegations from two women that they had sex with him at Epstein's direction. You can read more about the case at Politico. Peter Weber

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