Playbook: Mystery craft gets a Super Bowl Sunday splash

With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross


THE WEEK AHEAD — Tomorrow: BLS releases January inflation data; President JOE BIDEN addresses the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference … Wednesday: NIKKI HALEY makes presidential campaign announcement in Charleston, S.C.; Senate Finance Committee holds confirmation hearing for IRS commissioner nominee DANNY WERFEL Friday: Munich Security Conference begins, with VP KAMALA HARRIS attending.

COMEBACK — The Kansas City Chiefs came hyped up out of halftime to take the win over the Philadelphia Eagles, 38-35. The final points were put on the board with just eight seconds left to play — after an iffy defensive holding call that set off Rep. BRENDAN BOYLE (D-Pa.) and legions of other Philly fans.

Other highlights: RIHANNA performing the halftime show while pregnant with her second child … RUPERT MURDOCH and ELON MUSK sitting together like old pals … Sen. TIM SCOTT (R-S.C.) and House Speaker KEVIN McCARTHYhanging out with ROB GRONKOWSKI

Here are three non-football storylines we’re following: 

DON’T LOOK UP — For the fourth time in eight days, the U.S. shot down a flying object yesterday. The latest kill came above Lake Huron, near the border with Canada, after it had flown over part of Michigan, The Detroit News’ Melissa Nann Burke and Kim Kozlowski report. The Pentagon said an F-16 fighter jet took the object down with a Sidewinder missile at around 20,000 feet after determining that it posed no “kinetic military threat” but could potentially interfere with flight safety or conduct surveillance.

Our Paul McLeary, Olivia Olander, Lara Seligman and Alexander Ward write that defense officials remain mum on the topic, “raising questions over the threat the objects could have represented to civilians across North America, what the purpose of the objects was, and why there has been a rash of detections and responses with fighter planes and guided missiles.”

Air Force Gen. GLEN VanHERCK, who’s in charge of monitoring North American airspace, said yesterday he wouldn’t rule out any explanation for the series of recent unidentified airborne objects — including aliens, Reuters’ Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali report. “I’ll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out,” VanHerck said.

But a second defense official said there was no evidence of extraterrestrial involvement. And NYT’s Julian Barnes, Helene Cooper and Edward Wong run through the wide range of earthbound theories percolating through the natsec community — dealing both with what these objects are and what accounts for the spate of recent incidents.

We asked Alex Ward, author of National Security Daily, what questions he’s looking to answer this week:

  1. Why does there seem to be an increase in sightings of these objects? 
  2. What is the U.S. telling allies about the phenomenon? 
  3. Why are we shooting down so many? Did the rules of engagement change for dealing with these objects?
  4. What message is the U.S. sending to China, if any, about what’s going on?

TRUMP VS. DeSANTIS, CONT’D — While the one-man race for the Republican presidential nomination is set to get more interesting later this week with Haley’s expected announcement, the dominant storyline of the shadow GOP primary remains the DONALD TRUMP vs. RON DeSANTIS rivalry.

The big question hanging over the Florida governor is when to hit back at Trump’s escalating attacks, and NYT’s Michael Bender and Maggie Haberman dig into the DeSantis playbook, outlining a strategy of “conflict avoidance … delaying what is likely to be a hostile and divisive clash that forces the party’s voters to pick sides.”

“But now he faces the pressing question of how long this approach can work,” the two write, as Trump pummels DeSantis with nicknames and insinuations, both publicly and privately. “Mr. DeSantis must also decide just how forcefully to counterattack once he engages with Mr. Trump, and whether he has left himself enough room to effectively parry the former president’s taunts and smears without offending his loyal supporters.”

Republican operatives we’ve spoken to have long insisted that any candidate looking to dislodge Trump is going to have to take the former president head on, early and often. That advice may not jibe with DeSantis, who per Maggie is “looking at a late May, early June entrance if he runs.”

Related reads: “Ron DeSantis backed deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare while in Congress. Trump is ready to hammer him for it ahead of 2024,” Insider

FOILED AGAIN — Folks in the White House are still giddy after an underwhelming week for their main sparring partners, House Republicans — between Biden landing punches on potential entitlement cuts during the State of the Union and GOP largely whiffing in their first oversight hearings.

Be on the lookout this week for Biden and aides to keep hammering Republicans over their past remarks about cutting or modifying Medicare and Social Security. Biden is heading to Maryland on Wednesday for an economic speech where he’s sure to replay the hits from last week.

While Biden focuses on preserving the programs most important to American seniors, one administration ally told us last night, “Republicans are showing they want to increase the deficit with welfare for the rich, proving the President’s warnings about earned benefits right, and keep fixating on bizarre conspiracy theories.”

— Related read: “James Comer’s Two Jobs: Probe Bidens, Manage GOP Firebrands,” WSJ

But some fellow Democrats say the White House needs to strike a balance between confident and cocky.

The political winds have already shifted back and forth plenty during the Biden presidency, and despite the underwhelming revelations in last week’s House hearings, Republicans still have the motivation and the means to derail the administration, they warned.

“They have a lot of things going their way, and, unfortunately, they have reason to be” overconfident, one former White House aide told us, adding: “It doesn't nullify the other side's determination to, you know, embarrass the White House in whatever way they can.”

Good Monday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. What if this whole UFO thing is just a ploy to sell U2 tickets? Drop us a line with your favorite Super Bowl commercial: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.




2024 WATCH — Add another name to the pile of GOP presidential possibilities: VIVEK RAMASWAMY, who rocketed to conservative fame by opposing socially responsible investing in the corporate world, is weighing a 2024 bid, Daniel Lippman scoops from Des Moines, Iowa. Ramaswamy is “testing, among other things, whether his warnings about the dangers of ‘wokeism’ and [ESG] has political currency with Republican politicians, business leaders and, yes, farmers” — eyeing an outsider path similar to Trump in 2016 or ANDREW YANG in 2020.

JUST POSTED — “Haley faces ‘high-wire act’ in 2024 bid against Trump,” by AP’s Meg Kinnard and Steve Peoples

KEEP CALM AND KARI ON — After losing the Arizona governor’s race, KARI LAKE isn’t backing down from her baseless claims of election fraud: She barnstormed Iowa with her election denial message, WaPo’s Meryl Kornfield reports from Bettendorf. Refusing to admit her loss, Lake “drew enthusiastic crowds” of people still deep in the false belief that elections were rigged — even as some attendees and other parts of the GOP wanted to move on. Lake, who went to high school and college in Iowa, urged voters to grill Republican politicians about election security.

MIDTERM AUTOPSY — Top Black Democrats who lost competitive Senate races say the party needs to trust their ability to win — and provide the commensurate infrastructure and money, Brittany Gibson and Holly Otterbein report this morning. A variety of party operatives and campaign officials tell our colleagues that “[t]hey don’t just see the issue as one of campaign money but, rather, of Black candidates getting the same institutional support as their white peers.” The campaign of Wisconsin’s MANDELA BARNES didn’t feel he got enough outside support to counter attacks from Republican PACs. But some institutional Dems say they prioritized incumbents and provided all they could in certain races.

ON WISCONSIN — “GOP election tactics no surprise to Wisconsin’s Black voters,” by AP’s Harm Venhuizen in Milwaukee: “Black voters said they are tired of the countless hurdles that disproportionately try to keep them from being heard at the ballot box. Voters said their experiences with the GOP have been as voices to silence, not to win over.”


A TALE OF TWO GROUPS — WSJ’s Catherine Lucey and Ken Thomas and Axios’ Josh Kraushaar examine the discrepancy between Democratic politicos, who are getting happier and more unified about a Biden 2024 bid, and Democratic voters, who are not. Many regular Dems say they still have concerns about the octogenarian’s abilities and his fitness to be the party’s standard bearer. But institutional Democrats are largely no longer voicing worries about his age. And chatter on the left about a primary challenge to Biden has largely dissipated, The Hill’s Hanna Trudo reports.


BEND YOUR EARMARK — House Republicans are working on rules to provide more guardrails around earmarks, planning to retain the practice while trying to make it more palatable to their constituents and their colleagues, Sarah Ferris and Jennifer Scholtes report this morning. “The chamber’s new majority plans to limit the types of projects that are eligible for guaranteed cash. For instance, they would prevent lawmakers from locking in funding for items like city parks and county museums — things that might brandish a member’s name. Lawmakers would still be free to secure money for projects like building bridges or water systems.” It might not be enough to win over earmark opponents.

SLOWING THEIR ROLL — This Congress has gotten up to very little of meaningful substance so far, with the House passing bills that won’t become law and the Senate doing barely anything at all. Conservatives see it as victory, Burgess Everett and Olivia Beavers report this morning. For the GOP’s right flank, the strategy is to prevent Biden from landing legislative achievements and unseat him next year. House Republicans have divided Democrats on some votes, and they’re relishing the inaction in the upper chamber.

“‘I actually appreciate this go-slow approach,’ said Sen. CYNTHIA LUMMIS (R-Wyo.), who said the country needs a ‘breather’ after the past two years. ‘It’s time to slow down.’”

ANGIE CRAIG LATEST — “Man charged with attacking Rep. Angie Craig has history of arrests for lewd and violent incidents,” by CBS’ Scott MacFarlane: “KENDRID HAMLIN, 26, is due to appear in federal court in Washington on Monday to face charges that he struck [Rep. ANGIE] CRAIG in the face with a closed fist when she refused to let him into her apartment. … A CBS News review of court records shows nearly a decade of criminal cases involving Hamlin, who is believed to be experiencing homelessness.”

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK — “Hopeful freshman lawmakers run up against the reality of a divided House,” by WaPo’s Marianna Sotomayor: “[T]hese new members are now bracing for the possibility that hopes of fulfilling their campaign promises could be dashed if the GOP’s fractured ranks thwart the party’s desire to govern. The freshman Democrats and Republicans who spoke to The Washington Post see an opportunity to bridge the divide, given that they all believe voters gave Republicans a narrow majority in hopes that the parties will work together.”


MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON — DOJ special counsel JACK SMITH is moving quickly as he coordinates the various Trump investigations, which he ultimately views “as being of a single piece … even if they produce divergent outcomes,” NYT’s Maggie Haberman, Glenn Thrush and Alan Feuer report in a detailed look at Smith’s early days back in D.C. The tension between wrapping up quickly and exhaustively pursuing investigative pathways is a challenge for Smith’s team, on which he’s “empowering subordinates rather than interposing himself directly.” His investigators have been asking witnesses about the information Trump got regarding foreign countries and voting machine tampering, among other topics.

FOLDEROL — Trump lawyer TIMOTHY PARLATOREtold CNN’s Paula Reid that the empty folder with classified markings that was recently handed over to DOJ is not actually a classified folder. Trump was in fact using the folder to cover up a blue light emitting from the landline telephone in his bedroom so he could sleep at night, Parlatore said.


HAPPENING THIS WEEK — “Terror Trial Could Yield Manhattan’s First Death Penalty in 60 Years,” by NYT’s Benjamin Weiser and Lola Fadulu: “On Monday, U.S. prosecutors will ask 12 people to authorize a punishment that hasn’t been levied on a Manhattan defendant since 1963: death.”


FED UP — Fed Chair JEROME POWELL is broadcasting a very different message about the economy than Biden: As the president trumpets economic strength, Powell keeps warning that it’ll force the central bank to raise rates higher, Victoria Guida reports this morning. January’s consumer price index numbers come out tomorrow, a key moment of truth. With inflation improving but not all better yet, “Powell says he’ll do what it takes to keep borrowing costs high and prevent price increases from becoming a more permanent feature of the economy.”

PAGING JIM BANKS — “Army sees safety, not ‘wokeness,’ as top recruiting obstacle,” by AP’s Lolita Baldor: “[T]he military service says the bigger hurdles are more traditional ones: Young people don’t want to die or get injured, deal with the stress of Army life and put their lives on hold. … Addressing those longtime issues has taken on greater urgency as the Army tries to recover from its worst recruiting year in decades, a situation aggravated by the tight jobs market.”

WHAT’S COOKING — “U.S. Begins Allowing Medicaid Money to Be Spent on Food,” by WSJ’s Stephanie Armour and Kristina Peterson: “The Biden administration has started approving state requests to use Medicaid to pay for groceries and nutritional counseling as policy makers explore whether ‘food as medicine’ programs can lead to broad health benefits and trim costs.”

LEFT BEHIND? — “Black farmers call for justice from the USDA,” by NPR’s Ximena Bustillo

CLIMATE FILES — “The Fight to Define Green Hydrogen, With Billions of Dollars at Stake,” by WSJ’s Amrith Ramkumar and Katherine Blunt


DANCE OF THE SUPERPOWERS — “U.S. holds drills in South China Sea amid tensions with China,” AP/Beijing: “The 7th Fleet based in Japan said Sunday that the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit have been conducting ‘integrated expeditionary strike force operations’ in the South China Sea.”

FOR YOUR RADAR — “U.S. citizen detained in Jordan launches hunger strike,” by CNN’s Aaron Pellish and Evan Perez: “A US citizen detained in Jordan is calling on the US government to demand his return to the United States … BASSEM AWADALLAH, a dual US-Jordanian citizen, was arrested in April 2021 and sentenced to 15 years … Awadallah is also a former adviser to Saudi Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN.”

ISRAEL ZOOMS HARD RIGHT — “Israel authorises West Bank outposts, despite U.S. admonition,” by Reuters’ Dan Williams in Jerusalem: “Israel granted retroactive authorisation on Sunday to nine Jewish settler outposts in the occupied West Bank and announced mass-construction of new homes within established settlements, moves likely to draw U.S. opposition.”


EK EEK — “How Spotify’s podcast bet went wrong,” by Semafor’s Max Tani: “Spotify was a one-company podcast bubble. Its drastic cuts have triggered a podcast winter, as the small studios it helped support consolidate and lavish narrative productions wane. But rivals from tech giants Amazon and Apple to the radio company iHeart have found better returns on more cautious bets. Spotify’s pivot has more in common with the recent cuts to Hollywood’s spending on streaming television.”


OUT AND ABOUT — SPOTTED at a party Saturday night celebrating FleishmanHillard’s Marisa Fernandez and WSJ’s Josh Jamerson, who got engaged on New Year’s Eve: Alexi McCammond, Tim Perry, Jasmine Wright, Ursula Perano, Haley Britzky, Daniella Diaz, Roy Loewenstein, Astead Herndon, Maritza Carmona, Tarini Parti, C. Ryan Barber, Dustin Volz, Jess Bidgood, Kyle Chayka, Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, Allan Smith, Caitlin Owens and Shannon Vavra.Pic

TRANSITIONS — Former Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is now a distinguished visiting fellow in the practice of public policy at the American Enterprise Institute. … The House Small Business Committee has added Sam Denham as deputy comms director and Matt Burton as a comms adviser under Chair Roger Williams (R-Texas). Denham previously was deputy comms director for Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Texas). Burton previously was a senior research analyst at the Senate Leadership Fund. … Jill Dickerson is now deputy comms director for the House Budget Committee. She most recently was Republican deputy comms director for the Senate Commerce Committee. …

… Evan Chapman is now U.S. federal policy director at Clean Air Task Force. He previously was deputy chief of staff/legislative director for the late Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and Virginia’s 4th District. … Elizabeth Oien is now digital communication and content specialist for the House Appropriations Committee. She most recently was deputy director of the war room at the RNC. … Kurtis Miller is now a legislative assistant for Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.). They previously were a technical associate at Nexight Group.

ENGAGED — John Horstman and Carolina Hurley, both Trump White House alums now working in public relations in Los Angeles, got engaged Saturday. A small celebration followed his proposal. PicSPOTTED:Mark Bednar, Meghan McCann and Matt Schuck.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD — Oriana Pawlyk, aviation reporter at POLITICO, and Marcus Weisgerber, global business editor at Defense One, on Wednesday night welcomed Kalyna Sofia Weisgerber, who came in at 6 lbs, 2 oz. PicAnother pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) … Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas) … Chip Smith … former Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) … former Missouri Gov. Jay NixonLila Nieves-LeeJeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center … George KundanisBill McCarren … Bloomberg’s Stacie ShermanTobi Young … i360’s Brian Szmytke Jeanne Mancini … KPMG’s Sven Erik HolmesMae Stevens … Fox News’ Cailin KearnsSamantha Slater … Reuters’ Mike SpectorJill Barclay … SpyTalk’s Jeff SteinAlex Hinson … Blackstone’s Elizabeth Lewis … Siemens’ Camille Johnston Raven Reeder … Meta’s Alex BurgosMegan BeckerBetsy AnkneyMark Cohen … POLITICO’s Daniel Payne Emily Minster of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) office

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