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On the roster: Don’t drown in leaks on Russia probe – House hardliners scoff at talk of immigration deal – Trump’s resentment of Kelly said to be irreparable – Preibus picks sides in Wisconsin senate primary – In lieu of flowers, send beef Meximelts 

Is the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election a sinister “insurance policy” by anti-Trump Deep State bureaucrats to depose a rightfully elected president?

Or is it a necessary but boring exercise that will ultimately reveal “no big there there” and amount to a career sidetrack for an ambitious agent?

Bear in mind as you choose your own adventure that both ideas are based on the out-of-context texts by a former senior FBI agent, Peter Strzok, to his paramour, a former top attorney at the agency.

Now, the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller can’t simultaneously be a soft coup and a pointless exercise. Strzok can’t be both plotting the downfall of President Trump in a secret cabal while concurrently looking at the work as career-limiting drudgery.

The problem, of course, is that we are operating without fuller context and knowledge about the people involved and the millions of other messages between agents we have never and will never see.

We know you are smart mammals and already know all about things like confirmation bias, availability cascades and the autonomic human response to information that threatens dearly held views.

You know already our species’ capacity for rationalization, self-deception and the frightening power of tribalism to warp our thinking. We know you know all of this and more because we have always found our readers to be bright, fair-minded and intellectually curious.

We only point out the contradictory narratives being pushed by partisans around Strzok’s texts because they so neatly illustrate the ongoing damage that cherry-picked, cynically partisan leaks from both sides are doing not just to the credibility of Mueller’s investigation, but also to the overall trust Americans have in our law enforcement and judicial systems to find facts and render fair judgments.

The way a prosecution is supposed to work is that a responsible officer of the court and his associates are instructed to, bearing in mind equal protections under the law for all Americans, dig to get to the bottom when wrongdoing seems apparent.

History has long been littered with crooked prosecutors, police and judges. We know plenty of stories about overzealous G-Men or judges on the take. We know these stories because they are like they are the planes that crash, not the ones that pull safely to the gate on time.

We have not, so far, seen any evidence of willful collusion between the Trump campaign and Kremlin agents. Neither have we seen any evidence to show Mueller is a crook. We cannot hold against Trump what might be true, just as we cannot when it comes to Mueller.

The shameful, grubby conduct of members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, when it comes to this investigation, on the other hand, is unambiguous. We get to see every day men and women with a duty to preserve and protect the Constitution recklessly exploit a matter of enormous importance for personal and partisan gain.

We would only urge you, our readers, to do your best to take lightly the claims of these lawmakers, especially the ones who have already demonstrated their willingness to weaponize isolated facts.

There’s every reason to think that Mueller’s investigation has reached its terminal phase, and to hope that we will soon have some definitive answers supported by evidence about what did or did not happen.

Until we get there, it is fine to stay abreast of the competitive leaking and spinning from the Hill – we’re just encouraging you to keep the salt shaker handy as you do.

Fox News: “FBI Director Chris Wray announced Tuesday that his chief of staff, James Rybicki, is leaving the bureau. Rybicki, who served in the same position under former FBI Director James Comey, had come under scrutiny from Republicans in recent months about his role in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Federal law enforcement sources told Fox News that Rybicki was not fired. His departure, they said, has ‘been in the works for awhile.’ ‘Jim Rybicki notified me last month that he will be leaving the FBI to accept an opportunity in the corporate sector,’ Wray said in a statement. ‘While this is an exciting move for the whole Rybicki family, Jim will be dearly missed by the FBI family – and by me personally.’”

Wray reportedly threatened to leave over Sessions’ meddling – Axios: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions … has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, but Wray threatened to resign if McCabe was removed, according to three sources with direct knowledge. Wray’s resignation under those circumstances would have created a media firestorm. The White House — understandably gun-shy after the Comey debacle — didn’t want that scene, so McCabe remains. Sessions told White House Counsel Don McGahn about how upset Wray was about the pressure on him to fire McCabe, and McGahn told Sessions this issue wasn’t worth losing the FBI Director over, according to a source familiar with the situation. … Trump started his presidency by pressuring one FBI Director (before canning him), and then began pressuring another (this time wanting his deputy canned). This much meddling with the FBI for this long is not normal.”

Sessions interviewed by Mueller team
Fox News: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions spent several hours being grilled by the special counsel’s office last week as part of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the Justice Department confirmed Tuesday. This is the first time that investigators for the special counsel are known to have interviewed a Cabinet member. Sessions is thought to be the highest-ranking Trump administration official to be interviewed to date. The meeting comes as Robert Mueller looks into whether President Trump’s actions in office, including the firing of FBI Director James Comey, constituted obstruction of justice.”

House GOP wants to release secret memo, but won’t share with Sessions –
Politico: “House Republicans have refused to share with the Justice Department a secret memo alleging misconduct by federal officials investigating the 2016 Trump campaign’s Russia ties, even as they build a case that President Donald Trump should authorize the memo’s public release. An official at the Justice Department, helmed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein, confirmed to POLITICO on Monday that the department has requested access to the classified document but has not been able to see it. The FBI, too, has been denied access to the document. Sources familiar with the memo, which was compiled by aides to House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, say it claims that senior FBI officials abused a secret surveillance program, commonly known as FISA, to target the Trump campaign last fall.”

“Notwithstanding their true interest with respect to the continental nations was really the same, yet by the arts and policy and practices of those nations, their mutual jealousies were perpetually kept inflamed, and for a long series of years they were far more inconvenient and troublesome than they were useful and assisting to each other.” – John JayFederalist No. 5

History: “[On this day in 1973] President Nixon announces that Henry Kissinger andLe Duc Tho, the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, have initialled a peace agreement in Paris ‘to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.’ … After the South Vietnamese had blunted the massive North Vietnamese invasion launched in the spring of 1972, Kissinger and the North Vietnamese had finally made some progress on reaching a negotiated end to the war. However, a recalcitrant South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu had inserted several demands into to the negotiations that caused the North Vietnamese negotiators to walk out of the talks with Kissinger on December 13. President Nixon issued an ultimatum to Hanoi to send its representatives back to the conference table within 72 hours ‘or else.’ The North Vietnamese rejected Nixon’s demand and the president ordered Operation Linebacker II, a full-scale air campaign against the Hanoi area.”

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Trump job performance 
Average approval: 
38.6 percent 
Average disapproval: 57 percent 
Net Score: 
-18.4 points
Change from one week ago: up 4.8 points
[Average includes: ABC News/WaPo: 38% approve – 58% disapprove; CNN: 43% approve – 53% disapprove; NBC News/WSJ: 39% approve – 57% disapprove; CBS News: 37% approve – 58% disapprove; Gallup: 36% approve – 59% disapprove.]

Control of House
Republican average: 40.8 percent
Democratic average: 50.4 percent
Advantage: Democrats plus 9.6 points 
[Average includes: ABC News/WaPo: 51% Dems – 39% GOP; CNN: 49% Dems – 44% GOP; NBC News/WSJ: 49% Dems – 43% GOP; Quinnipiac University: 50% Dems – 39% GOP; Pew Research Center: 53% Dems – 39% GOP.]

Daily Beast: “When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) committed on Monday to moving an immigration bill before Feb. 8, he didn’t give any incentives for the House of Representatives or the White House to follow suit on bipartisan legislation of their own. ‘The reality is: you can’t—how do you get a commitment from the House?’ explained Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with Democrats. ‘I think they’re going to have to do what they’re going to do.’ That was the risk most Democrats were willing to take on Monday in order to get themselves out of a political quagmire of their own making when they forced a government shutdown three days ago. … Within a matter of minutes on Monday, conservative House Republicans were throwing cold water on whether a Senate commitment to holding an open-ended immigration reform process changes their calculus. ‘You don’t reward bad behavior.’ … Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told The Daily Beast.”

Schumer pulls down wall funding offer – Politico: “Chuck Schumer is taking his big spending boost for Donald Trump’s border wall off the table. The Senate minority leader, through an aide, informed the White House on Monday that he was retracting the offer he made last week to give Trump well north of the $1.6 billion in wall funding Trump had asked for this year, according to two Democrats. And now they say Trump will simply not get a better deal than that on his signature campaign promise. Schumer ‘took it off,’ said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat. ‘He called the White House yesterday and said it’s over.’ … Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said Tuesday that the Schumer offer ‘never existed.’ ‘You can’t rescind money you never really offered in the first place,’ he said on Fox News.”

Federal workers brace for more shutdowns- AP: “The swift steps ending a messy and expensive government shutdown set the stage for hundreds of thousands of federal workers to return Tuesday, but some say they fear they could find themselves in limbo again in a few more weeks. … For days, the shutdown effectively cleaved the federal workforce in half as hundreds of thousands of workers were sent home while others declared essential employees stayed on the job. Felicia Sharp, a lab tech with the Defense Department at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia, was deemed essential and reported to work Monday. … During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted more than two weeks, Sharp took on two part-time jobs to make sure her bills were paid.”

Senate intel leaders warn of ‘unchecked powers’ in short-term funding bill – McClatchy: “The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned Monday that a small change in the short-term funding bill passed to keep the government open could give the Trump administration unchecked powers over intelligence programs. The continuing resolution to fund the government sent to President Donald Trump on Monday also includes funding for children’s health care, delays to several tax provisions and, unhappily for North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a language change that impacts who decides how funds are spent by the intelligence community. ‘This language could erode the powers of the authorizing committee. Effectively, the intelligence community could expend funds as it sees fit,’ said Burr, the chairman of the intelligence committee which is running a high-profile investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.”

Still better than a conch… – CNN: “During bipartisan talks between senators to discuss passing a funding bill to end the government shutdown, Sen. Susan Collins whose office was being used for the negotiations, figured out a civil way to create discussion. Collins, R-Maine, introduced her fellow colleagues to using a talking stick during discussions, multiple senators told CNN. Whoever was holding the stick was the only senator allowed to talk — to prevent cross-talking. One Republican senator describing the incident told CNN the stick was successful, but on one occasion, one of the other senators was speaking while another asked a question and then turned with another quick, longer, louder question. The member who was holding the stick ‘forcefully delivered’ the stick across the room — but it missed its mark and caused damage to a shelf in Collins’ office.”

Vanity FairDonald Trump’s relationship with John Kelly, his chief of staff, fraught from the beginning, may finally have gone past the point of no return. Two prominent Republicans in frequent contact with the White House told me that Trump has discussed choosing Kelly’s successor in recent days, asking a close friend what he thought about David Urban, a veteran Washington lobbyist and political operative who helped engineer Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania. Ivanka is also playing a central role in the search, quietly field-testing ideas with people. … In recent days, Trump has fumed to friends that Kelly acts like he’s running the government while Trump tweets and watches television. ‘I’ve got another nut job here who thinks he’s running things,’ Trump told one friend, according to a Republican briefed on the call. A second source confirmed that Trump has vented about Kelly, mentioning one call in which Trump said, ‘This guy thinks he’s running the show.’” 

Trump voter probe targeted voters with Hispanic surnames – WaPo: “President Trump’s voting commission asked every state and the District for detailed voter registration data, but in Texas’s case it took an additional step: It asked to see Texas records that identify all voters with Hispanic surnames, newly released documents show. In buying nearly 50 million records from the state with the nation’s second-largest Hispanic population, a researcher for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity checked a box on two Texas public voter data request forms explicitly asking for the ‘Hispanic surname flag notation,’ to be included in information sent to the voting commission, according to copies of the signed and notarized state forms. White House and Texas officials said the state’s voter data was never delivered because a lawsuit brought by Texas voting rights advocates after the request last year temporarily stopped any data handoff.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus didn’t just endorse state Sen. Leah Vukmir of Brookfield Monday in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. Priebus also slammed Vukmir’s GOP rival, Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson, questioning his conservative credentials. It was yet another display of fireworks in an increasingly testy primary as Republicans battle to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November. Noting that Nicholson led College Democrats in 2000, Preibus told Jay Weber of WISN-AM (1130), ‘When you go from president of the College Democrats to wanting to be the U.S. Senator for the Republican Party, I think there should be some in-between time.’”

Dems see potential in Georgia governor race – Politico: “Emboldened by statewide victories last year in Virginia and Alabama, Democrats are setting their sights this fall on another Deep South prize once thought to be out of reach: Georgia’s governorship, a seat the party hasn’t held in more than 15 years. The party has two major candidates with a lot in common: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are both veterans of the Georgia state House. Both are running as unapologetic liberals who see a path to victory guided by tapping into black voters, whom they see as an electoral sleeping giant — and courting suburban whites who usually vote Republican but are repelled by President Donald Trump.”

Ryan-backed PAC pumps up spending for Pa. special – Politico: “The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Republican leadership, is prepping a $1.5 million TV campaign to save a vacant southwestern Pennsylvania seat. The advertising campaign will begin on Friday and continue through the March 13 special election, according to a party strategist briefed on the plans. The super PAC has already begun a field deployment effort in the district. The TV blitz is part of a broader Republican effort to keep Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District seat, from which GOP Rep. Tim Murphy recently resigned following allegations that he had asked a woman with whom he was having an affair to have an abortion. President Donald Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, and a loss would be widely seen as a major blow for the party.”

Field shaping up for Issa’s replacement – San Diego Union-Tribune: “After a trip to Washington, D.C., last week, San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar has formed a committee to run for Congress. Federal Election Commission records show Gaspar formed a committee to run for a seat held by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista. Issa announced earlier this month that he will not run for re-election, a decision that brought a wave of Republican hopefuls into the conservative-leaning district.”

Scalise returns to work after successful surgery – Roll Call

House ethics panel will investigate Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., over harassment claim – WaPo

Vermont legalizes marijuana, Republican Gov. Phil Scott has mixed feelings
 – Reuters

Trump administration bypasses environmental regulations to speed up wall construction – The Hill

“2013? 2013?!” – Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, when asked by Bloomberg reporter Steven Dennis to respond to the statement from her colleague Ted Cruz of Texas that he had “consistently opposed shutdowns.” 

“Thanks for putting in the Approval and Disapproval scores. The basically meaningless Net Score was driving me nuts! I read this as 75% of Republicans approve; and All Democrats + a few Never-Trumpers disapprove.” – Phil Brunner, Flagstaff, Ariz.

[Ed. note: We’re glad you like it, Mr. Brunner. Brianna and I had been looking for the best way to be more transparent but not overwhelm you with useless data. I think we’ve struck a happy balance here but, as ever, retain the privilege to revise as needed. You sound like a Trump fan, so I would only offer you one caution here: 57 percent of the electorate is nothing to sneeze at. No presidential candidate has won that share of the popular vote since 1984. It’s not just that Trump has weak support, it’s the intensity of the opposition to him in the middle of the political spectrum that is most striking. There’s far more energy in the ranks of the opposition than many Republicans are willing to concede right now. They ignore it at their own peril.]

“I read your HALFTIMEREPORT almost every day and usually I agree with you. But, in today’s report I want to take exception with you under the heading of, ‘FROM THE BLEACHERS.’ In the Ed. note, you state, ‘The question of when a human being is alive and when the rights afforded——-.’ ‘Every person must answer the question in their heart of when an unborn child is deemed worthy of those rights.’ I certainly do agree with your last sentence of the paragraph, but I know there is verifiable medical proof by ultrasound technology, etc. that shows when the heart of an unborn is beating at a certain stage of pregnancy. That evidence, seems to me, to be the basis for determination when an unborn child is deemed worthy of the right to life and not to death. So, this is not a matter of interpretation and is not a relative matter, it seems to me. Please reply back and tell me if my reasoning/logic is correct or is too simplified.” – Darrell Watson, San Jose, Calif.

[Ed. note: It’s not for me to say whether you are correct, but certainly you are in much good company in your view. The definition of life in a legal sense was fairly unambiguous until well into the modern era. Both legal scholars and theologians considered an unborn child alive and due the protections of the state at the moment of quickening, i.e. the moment when the fetus begins to move at or about 14 weeks of gestation. This was considered by many the moment of the seating of the soul. That view fell out of favor as science supplanted faith in Western culture. The fierce debates on abortion 40 or 50 years ago introduced instead the concept of fetal viability – Could the child survive outside the womb? Abortion rights activists were so concerned about staking out the most aggressive bargaining position came to hold that abortion for any reason should be legal for every moment of the pregnancy until birth. The response from abortion foes was to move the line in the other direction, calling for the expansion of legal protections to the moment of conception – a philosophical rebuttal of the concept of viability rooted in the Judeo-Christian mandate to protect most assiduously live at its most vulnerable – the aged, the infirm and the unborn. But here again, science intervened. The development of cheap, reliable ultrasound technology as well as rapid advances in neonatal care informed our understanding both of fetal formation and viability. That’s why you have seen the national push toward banning elective abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. But the problem will not ultimately be resolved by science. For those who believed African-American slaves were subhuman and needful of white oversight, would a DNA map have convinced them otherwise? After all, the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis was a scientific-sounding undertaking based on much “evidence” offered by eugenicists. The fight over the legality of elective abortion, while certainly informed by science, is really about faith and morality and the questions they pose and answer. What is a life? What is our purpose here? Are humans something separate and apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Do we have souls? Given the fact that the ranks of nonbelievers continue to grow, this debate will not likely get easier anytime soon.]     

“Dear Chris and Dana – I was catching up on a batch of [“I’ll Tell You What”] podcasts on the bus ride back from D.C. on Friday night… so glad to have remembered my headphones! I attended March For Life for the first time with a group of friends from my church, St. Aloysius in New Canaan, and we were all pretty much zonked out after the Delaware rest stop/food court. I was still awake enough to spend a couple hours with you guys. I’m late to the Book Club but ordered the Wolfe book (and not the Wolff book) on Amazon. Great choice, Chris – anxious to read it this week. By the way, re TW, was there anything cooler back in the late ’80s than discovering the Epilogue at the end of ‘Bonfire’? So much fun. And Dana was exactly right when she said that a novel can ‘shape a generation’. May I suggest the book I’m currently reading for consideration for your new Book Club?  It’s Daniel James Brown‘s ‘The Indifferent Stars Above’. Brown wrote ‘The Boys In The Boat’, my favorite book in years. It’s great to be spend time with his skillful writing style again. Anyway, look it up, read an excerpt and see what you think. And don’t be scared off by ‘Donner Party’ in the sub-title. It’s a remarkable story that traces the journey of a young woman who was a fellow traveler of the author’s great uncle. The book’s title comes from a Yeats poem, ‘A Dream of Death’. Sounds dark, I know, but the book is a fascinating look at an Illinois family that decides to head West in the mid-1840s.Those people were tough! Thanks for your super podcast. It’s a real treat.” – John Walsh, New Canaan, Conn.

[Ed. note: Mr. Walsh, you are to be highly commended for surviving post-Delaware food coma status! I think I can speak for Ms. Perino in offering much appreciation for your careful, attentive listening and thoughtful comments (“Bonfire” is certainly high in my personal cannon). I’ll take a look at your suggestion and get Dana’s take, too. As long as it’s not about food, outer space or the future, you’ve got a fighting chance!]

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WSFA: “Customers held a candlelight vigil Sunday night for a Montgomery Taco Bell destroyed by fire. According to Montgomery Fire/Rescue, the Taco Bell in the 2600 block of Zelda Road partially collapsed after catching fire Wednesday morning. Based on a scene evaluation, investigators believe the fire began in a small room holding ‘electrical distribution equipment.’ About 100 people came out in support of the location, paying tribute and remembering their favorite Taco Bell. The owners of the Zelda Road location released a statement last week thanking the community for their support. They also say they’re planning a comeback and will rebuild. The owners stated: ‘We will have a true celebration upon re-opening and hope that all of you that Quiero Taco Bell will Run to the Border on Zelda and LiveMas with us!!!!’”

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C.