The man who could be Italy’s next prime minister

Antonio Tajani has done little to distinguish himself as president of the European Parliament — and that, his supporters say, is by design.

He may be friendly and a skillful coalition builder, but he’s not a pushy leader like his predecessor Martin Schulz. In the more than a year that he’s been in office, he seems to have paid more attention to Italian politics than to the institution he supposedly manages.

That’s the verdict from Tajani’s colleagues in Parliament. And it echoes the bullet points on a resume — uncharismatic, uncontroversial, loyal to his party — that has served him well throughout his political career, including a prior stint as Italy’s commissioner.

These very qualities now give him a strong chance of becoming Italy’s next prime minister.

“Tajani is the typical Christian Democrat who tries to never clash frontally with anyone” — Sergio Cofferati, Italian Social-Democrat MEP

The last polls ahead of Italy’s March 4 parliamentary election put former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition tantalizingly close to securing the seats it would need to form a government. The 81-year-old billionaire media mogul has been banned from holding public office because of a tax fraud conviction, meaning he would have to find somebody to serve in his place.

Enter, maybe, Tajani.

As the leaden ying to Berlusconi’s bling-bling going back decades, the longtime Brussels denizen may be about to hit the pinnacle of his political career, working once again with the man with whom he founded the Forza Italia party in the 1990s.

On Tuesday, Berlusconi said he wanted to put forward Tajani’s name for the country’s top job but was waiting for the Parliament president’s permission. “Because of the very important role [Tajani] fills, he has asked me to put forward his name only when he gives me the go-ahead,” he said.

“He’d be valuable for Berlusconi,” said Sergio Cofferati, an Italian Social-Democrat MEP. “Tajani is the typical Christian Democrat who tries to never clash frontally with anyone. He’s also an outsider who has not been involved in internal political conflicts.”

In addition, Cofferati said, “a former Italian commissioner is much more valuable in Italy than a minister.”

Tajani, through his spokesman, declined to comment for this article.

‘Nowhere to be seen’

Tajani’s admirers point out that, as Parliament president, he’s doing exactly what he promised when he pledged to serve as “speaker of the house,” meaning that unlike his German predecessor, he doesn’t inject himself into political debates and works hard to build consensus among political groups.

“He’s the anti-Schulz,” said Frank Engel, a Luxembourgish MEP from Tajani’s European People’s Party. “He didn’t feel the need to go into every battle and get involved in every file which is good because the president of the Parliament should keep a certain impartiality.”

Elizabeth Morin-Chartier, a French MEP and one of the Parliament’s five quaestors — lawmakers charged with dealing with administrative matters and MEPs’ working conditions — praised Tajani for “re-establishing a good working environment in the Parliament.”

“Schulz was peremptory, Tajani is a listener,” she added.

To Tajani’s critics, these same traits are evidence of a wasted opportunity, proof that he’s more interested in mugging for Italian television cameras than advancing the interests of the institution he represents.

In the halls of parliament, the word is that Tajani would be happy to jump ship — for the right office | European Parliament audiovisual

He also seems content to leave the day-to-day operation of the assembly in the hands of the German Klaus Welle, the Parliament’s powerful secretary-general who holds the institution’s top unelected position.

“He’s completely hands-off in the house,” said a senior Parliament official. “He lets Welle do whatever he wants.”

“Tajani has been underperforming and is very uninspired,” said Jens Geier, a German Social Democrat MEP. “He just does bella figura in fulfilling his job.”

Many in the institution believe Tajani missed an opportunity to defend the Spitzenkandidat process, in which the parliamentary groups put forward candidates for the president of the European Commission with the understanding that the post will go to the political force that wins the most seats.

Last week at a summit in Brussels, EU national leaders rebuffed the Parliament’s insistence that the process be respected, on the grounds that the final decision for choosing the next Commission president rests with the Council.

“On European democracy, he’s nowhere to be seen,” Geier said.

“He’s very good at finding solutions and is skilled at pleasing everybody” — Parliament official

On Brexit, arguably the biggest challenge facing the EU, Tajani has not played much of a role, according to many in the chamber.

One senior Parliament official said Tajani’s deputy head of Cabinet participates in every meeting of the Brexit Steering Group — the task force that formulates the legislature’s position on the topic — and debriefs him. The Parliament’s Deputy Secretary-General Markus Winkler also meets Tajani before any vote involving Brexit.

But, “in general, I think it’s too complex and time consuming for Tajani to really get into the details,” said a second senior Parliament official.


Not all politicians are visionary disrupters. Some rise to power through coalition-building, party loyalty and the implicit promise that they aren’t going to do anything rash.

Tajani is the living proof that that approach can carry a politician to the highest levels of EU power.

He started his political career as Berlusconi’s spokesperson during the billionaire playboy’s first year in office, then mounted a successful run for European Parliament in 1994.

Tajani meets with European Council President Donald Tusk, left | European Parliament audiovisual

After two failed bids for office in Italy — for parliament and then for mayor of Rome — he was appointed to the Commission of President José Manuel Barroso by Berlusconi in 2008 and served six years in the Berlaymont.

During his time as industry commissioner, he was perceived by many of his colleagues as being more interested in the tourism industry than getting Europe ready for the digital revolution or the effects of globalization. In hindsight, Tajani’s time in the Commission is best remembered for his role in ignoring the warning signs of the Dieselgate scandal.

He became the Parliament’s president in 2017 thanks to an 11th-hour deal hatched between Manfred Weber, the German MEP who leads the EPP group, and Guy Verhofstadt, the Liberal ALDE leader.

Where Martin Schulz brought personality and panache to the job and raised the profile of the Parliament in the process, Tajani is more of an insider apparatchik, less eager than Schulz to express is personal views or push a Europhilic agenda.

Tajani does what a speaker of the house is asked to do — and little more: He chairs plenary sittings, makes sure internal rules are respected, and goes occasionally on official visits. Many in the office note that unlike Schulz, he has not tried to put his friends and political allies into positions of power at the Parliament.

“His hands don’t shake when he takes difficult decisions” — Elizabeth Morin-Chartier, French MEP

Tajani’s colleagues describe him as a man eager to broker compromises, and to never get anyone in trouble. “He’s very good at finding solutions and is skilled at pleasing everybody,” the first Parliament official said, “even if it takes him a lot of time.”

He has also followed up on Schulz’s idea to open plenary debates to “high-profile” political figures in an effort to boost the assembly’s standing. (Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa and French President Emmanuel Macron will chair upcoming debates in the Parliament.)

He has also taken risks in defense of the institution. When last summer Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called the Parliament “ridiculous” because only a tiny fraction of MEPs had showed up for a speech by the Maltese prime minister, Tajani “rose up in defense of the assembly,” the French MEP Morin-Chartier said.

In another episode, when one of the Parliament vice presidents, Ryszard Czarnecki, compared a rival lawmaker to a Nazi collaborator, Tajani summoned the two MEPs in his office in an attempt to resolve the matter quietly. In the end, Tajani’s conciliation was rejected by MEPs, who chose instead to make an example of Czarnecki by removing him from his VP position.

Many in Parliament say that Tajani makes his voice heard primarily when it comes to Italian matters | European Parliament audiovisual

Tajani also caused waves in Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt when he sent a letter to the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, arguing that EU lawmakers should be involved in drawing up rules for the non-performing loans of banks in the eurozone.

“His hands don’t shake when he takes difficult decisions,” Morin-Chartier added.

Italian ambitions

Several Parliament officials complained that Tajani has been more outspoken on matters involving Italy than the Parliament. “He’s involved in Italian politics but does it out of the public eye,” said a senior Parliament official.

Some of his recent excursions include attending the 50th  anniversary celebrations of the Sant’ Egidio community, celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of the Italian philosopher Francesco De Sanctis and participating in a conference with the pope in Rome.

Many in Parliament say that Tajani makes his voice heard primarily when it comes to Italian matters.

Last week, he called “unacceptable” the decision by Embraco, the world leader in the hermetic compressor market, to move 500 Italian jobs to Slovakia. He told the Italian newswire ANSA last month that Italy “should count for more in Europe after the upcoming elections.”

Tajani has never made his loyalty to Berlusconi a secret. On a recent tour of Brussels, Berlusconi met Juncker together with Tajani.

“We cannot just be extras,” he added. “Unfortunately, Italy is not one of the major players in Europe.”

The clearest example of Tajani’s Italian freelancing is his outspoken advocacy of Italy’s fight against the EU’s decision to relocate the European Medicines Agency to Amsterdam after Brexit, an intervention that goes against his stated goal of being merely the speaker of Parliament.

The city government of Milan, which applied to host the EMA, in January appealed to the European Court of Justice, arguing that Amsterdam had not been fully transparent about its preparedness to host the EU agency.

Last week, Tajani sent a letter to Juncker complaining that “the content of the offer made by the Dutch government to host the agency, and the assessment thereof made by the Commission, on the basis of which the proposal was made, have not been forwarded to Parliament.”

Tajani has never made his loyalty to Berlusconi a secret. On a recent tour of Brussels, Berlusconi met Juncker together with Tajani.

When in January, Berlusconi described Tajani as “a wonderful choice” for prime minister in a radio interview, he added that “he has always shown total and absolute loyalty to our principles and ideas, and to Silvio Berlusconi.”

Tajani could be the ideal candidate for Silvio Berlusconi, left | Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

A recent profile published on the gossipy news site Dagospia compared Tajani to “a mule from Lazio,” his home region outside of Rome. “He obeyed and commanded, waiting for his turn to come up,” the profile said. “He respected hierarchy but he has only one boss: Berlusconi.”

For Berlusconi, that likely sounds like the ideal candidate: a high-profile politician who puts loyalty first, much as Polish President Andrzej Duda does for Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party.

On Tuesday, European Council President Donald Tusk met with Tajani, a not-uncommon occurrence that was treated this time with unusual formality. “Tusk met him many other times, but this time the meeting was put in the official agenda and he was treated almost like a head of government” said an EU official.

Through a spokesman, Tajani has insisted he is “happy” at the European Parliament.

In the halls of Parliament, however, the word is that Tajani would be happy to jump ship — for the right office.

Three Parliament officials said that people close to Tajani told them that his ambition is to serve not as Italy’s prime minster, but as its president.

Fittingly, it would be a position with more prestige but less actual power.

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

DeVos rewrites rules for school civil rights probes

Betsy DeVos is pictured. | Getty Images

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Trump administration has overhauled the rules for investigating discrimination in the nation’s schools in a way that the Education Department says will boost efficiency but advocates fear will weaken enforcement of civil rights.

The new guidelines are the latest in a series of actions under the direction of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that have led civil rights groups and Democrats to blast the Trump administration for “diminishing” civil rights enforcement — a major focus of former President Barack Obama’s Education Department. The administration has rescinded protections for transgender students, is changing rules for campuses handling allegations of sexual assault and has closed civil rights complaints at twice the rate of its predecessor.

Story Continued Below

The changes appear to be in line with a goal of sifting more quickly through the thousands of civil rights complaints the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights receives each year. The changes appear in a new version of the Office for Civil Right’s Case Processing Manual, posted to the department’s website and dated effective March 5.

Among the changes: The new manual scraps all mentions of “systemic” investigations, continuing an effort by the Trump administration to narrow the scope of civil rights probes. It also eliminates an appeals process for students who say they faced discrimination and gives complainants less time to provide evidence to investigators.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said: “As [the Office for Civil Rights] continues to work on behalf of students to ensure their civil rights are protected and their cases are handled thoroughly in a timely manner, the office has undertaken a routine revision of its CPM to improve efficiency, effectiveness and clarity.” The new manual includes recommendations from and was reviewed by civil rights staff.

Hill said the Obama administration focus on systemic investigations led to a massive backlog of complaints and said the civil rights office will “certainly open a systemic investigation when the facts of the case warrant one.” She pointed out that DeVos recently announced a Title IX investigation into “systemic issues” around Michigan State University’s handling of reports of sexual violence against Larry Nassar.

But civil rights advocates were highly critical. “The decision to excise ‘systemic’ from the manual and — more importantly — from the work of [the Office for Civil Rights] means that they will be pursuing Whack-a-Mole justice, rather than change that actually addresses the systemic barriers to education faced by children of color, immigrant children, LGBTQ children, children with disabilities, and other marginalized children around the country,” said Miriam Rollin, director of the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit law firm.

The new manual is the first update to the guide since 2015.

In the change on systemic investigations, civil rights investigators in the past were told to gather years of data from a school to ensure that any potential problems did not extend beyond the specific complaint they were investigating. The Trump administration has sought to narrow that scope, asking investigators to focus only on the complaints in front of them.

The new guide also uses language that instructs investigators to dismiss allegations under a wider array of circumstances. The past manual listed 10 instances where investigators “may” dismiss complaints — if the student withdraws a complaint or if the civil rights office recently investigated a similar complaint, for example. In most of those instances, the old manual gave investigators leeway to keep the probe going if they believed systemic problems could be uncovered.

The new manual shifts all but one of those to a section telling investigators they “will” dismiss cases under those circumstances. It also adds language saying investigators will dismiss complaints if they are “no longer appropriate for investigation” — a new avenue for dismissal.

The new manual also scraps an appeals process for parents and students who disagree with investigators’ findings and shortens the time that complainants have to provide additional information to the civil rights office from 20 days to 14.

“You put all the pieces together and it severely impacts all student complaints of discrimination across the country,” said Paul Castillo, a senior attorney and students’ rights strategist at Lambda Legal, a nonprofit that seeks full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and people living with HIV. Castillo also worked as a civil rights investigator for the department in the Obama administration.

The Trump administration has moved more swiftly to resolve complaints than its predecessor. Investigators closed 17,787 cases in 2017 — more than double the number of cases resolved the year before, according to documents released with the administration’s recent budget request.

The new manual makes many of the same changes as a draft version obtained by the Associated Press last year.

GOP: Russian trolls pushed pro- and anti U.S. energy messages

A photo of what's believed to be the Internet Research Agency in Russia is pictured. | AP Photo

The Internet Research Agency (pictured), a Kremlin-linked Russian troll farm, issued thousands of posts on social media between 2015-2107 focusing on energy and environmental issues. | Mstyslav Chernov/AP Photo

Russian internet trolls ran a social media campaign targeting controversial U.S. energy projects — but the effort appeared to be designed to stir up anger among both environmental and pro-oil activists, according to a report that congressional Republicans released Thursday.

The report released by Rep. Lamar Smith’s House Science Committee fell short of proving the Texas lawmaker’s longstanding charge that Moscow had backed green groups in a bid to undermine the boom in U.S. oil and gas production.

Story Continued Below

The Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked Russian troll farm, issued thousands of posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram between 2015-2107 that focused on energy and environmental issues, especially targeting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which drew protests from greens and Native American groups.

“Love water not oil,” read one of the posts from February last year featuring a picture of a young girl looking over a prairie landscape, next to text opposing pipelines, fracking and tar sands.

But other messages criticized the pipeline protesters, and the group pushed posts both calling for action on climate change and to support oil production.

“I don’t care what ecologists say. Texas is the top oil producing state, and I’m [] proud of it! Let’s douse the Yankees with it and then just throw a burning match,” read one such message from a group named “Heart of Texas,” the same name as a group that stirred anti-Islam rallies with its internet posts.

Despite his previous contention that Russian interference was designed to disrupt U.S. energy development, Smith told reporters on Thursday he wasn’t surprised to postings on both sides of various energy issues. The efforts by the Russians were clearly trying to sow discord to prevent projects from being completed or policies from being enacted, he said.

“By stirring up both sides, clearly they saw that as something that could benefit them,” he said.

Smith had previous contended that Russia was bankrolling anti-fracking groups, and he wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, callling for him to investigate Russia’s “radical statements and vitriol directed at the U.S. fossil fuel sector.”

Russian accounts went beyond Dakota Access to also post about the Sabal Trail, Keystone XL, Colonial, Bayou Bridge and Enbridge Line 5 pipelines. The Russian embassy did not respond to questions about the report.

Massachusetts man arrested for allegedly sending white powder letter to Trump Jr.

Vanessa and Donald Trump Jr are pictured with their children. | AP Photo

Daniel Frisiello allegedly mailed the first letter to Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. (pictured right), which his wife, Vanessa, opened in February. | Pablo Martinez Mosivais/AP Photo

A Massachusetts man was arrested Thursday in connection with the mailing five letters containing suspicious white powder, one of which was sent to President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law.

Daniel Frisiello, 24, was arrested with federal charges of mailing threats to injure and providing false information and hoaxes and is set to appear in federal court in Worcester later Thursday, according to the Department of Justice.

Story Continued Below

Frisiello allegedly mailed the first letter to Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., which his wife, Vanessa, opened in February. Vanessa was transported as a precaution to a hospital in New York, shortly after coming in contact with the substance, which the New York Police Department said was nonhazardous.

Authorities said Frisiello referred to Trump Jr. as an “awful person.”

“You are an awful, awful person, I am surprised that your father lets you speak on TV,” the letter read, according to the Justice Department. “You make the family idiot, Eric, look smart. This is the reason why people hate you, so you are getting what you deserve. So shut the **** UP!”

“Truly disgusting that certain individuals choose to express their opposing views with such disturbing behavior,” Trump Jr. tweeted, after the incident.

The suspect also sent the other letters to the Interim United States Attorney for the Central District of California, Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a congressional candidate, and a Stanford law professor.

“Beyond terrifying the victims, these incidents caused law enforcement agencies around the country to spend time and money deploying emergency response units,” United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement. “Thankfully, the white powder in these letters was inert and no one was harmed.”

Power Briefing: TRUMP announces steel tariffs amid massive D.C. chaos

BUCKLE UP! … THE PRESIDENT announced he was slapping tariffs on steel (25%) and aluminium (10%) imports even though many of his top advisers are opposed to it, Capitol Hill had no idea what he was planning and his party’s elected officials don’t like the policy. … The New York Times reported THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE has accused the Republicans on the HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE of leaking SEN. MARK WARNER’S (D-VA.) text messages.Senate Intel Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) denies this to CNN’s Manu Raju …

… THE ADMINISTRATOR OF THE EPA just gave up first-class flying under pressure from lawmakers and the media. He said he needed to fly at the front of the plane for security reasons. … THE HUD SECRETARY is canceling an order for a $31,000 dining set for his office bought with government funds. … THE PRESIDENT called his attorney general’s decision making a “disgrace.” … THE PRESIDENT is again down a communications director, as Hope Hicks resigned. … THE U.S. AMBASSADOR TO MEXICO is leaving her post to “move on to new challenges and adventures.” … REPUBLICANS have found themselves completely at odds with their party’s president on gun policy.

Story Continued Below

WHAT A TOWN! And it is only Thursday.

ABOUT THAT TARIFF POLICY, from Ben White: “As of last night, senior administration officials thought Trump was set to announce big tariffs as high as 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum.

“As late as 10:30 a.m., Treasury officials thought Trump was set to announce the tariffs and were worried about market reaction. But by later Thursday morning it appeared those arguing against such a dramatic action, including NEC Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, had forestalled such an action at least for now.

“And the White House meeting was downgraded to a listening session with steel and aluminum industry executives.”

— Then Trump announced the tariffs anyways! Trump at the listening session, per WaPo’s David Nakamura, today’s pooler: “We’ll be signing it next week. And you’ll have protection for a long time in a while. You’ll have to regrow your industries, that’s all I’m asking.”

BEHIND THE SCENES … ANDREW RESTUCCIA and ADAM BEHSUDI: “Cohn has been arguing vociferously behind the scenes against the tariffs. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have all also raised concerns about the planned actions, arguing that they could damage the United States’ relationship with crucial allies.

“But Trump has long been dead-set on imposing tariffs, and he has the support of the trade hawks in his administration, including Navarro, Lighthizer and Ross. The debate within the administration has raged for months and pitted Trump’s top aides against one another.”

WHAT IN THE WORLD, via NYT’s Nicholas Fandos: “Senate Intelligence Leaders Say House G.O.P. Leaked a Senator’s Texts”: “The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee were behind the leak of private text messages between the Senate panel’s top Democrat and a Russian-connected lawyer, according to two congressional officials briefed on the matter.

“Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s Republican chairman, and Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat, were so perturbed by the leak that they demanded a rare meeting with Speaker Paul D. Ryan last month to inform him of their findings. They used the meeting with Mr. Ryan to raise broader concerns about the direction of the House Intelligence Committee under its chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, the officials said. …

“In a statement, a spokesman for Mr. Nunes, Jack Langer, did not dispute that the committee had leaked the messages, but called the premise of this article ‘absurd.’ … AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ryan, declined to comment. In his meeting with the senators, Mr. Ryan made clear that he heard their complaints but noted that he did not run the committee himself, the officials briefed on the encounter said.”

— @mkraju: “Burr flatly denies report that his panel has concluded that Nunes/House Rs behind leak of Warner texts. Says: ‘No,’ when asked if SSCI concluded that. He also denied they raised concerns about Nunes to Ryan. ‘We met with Speaker Ryan to update on our investigation. That was it.’”

THE BIG DOG IN PA-18 — JOE BIDEN will campaign with Democrat CONOR LAMB next Tuesday, per a release.

****** A message from the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs: America’s Seniors may be in for a Big October Surprise. CMS has proposed regulations that will increase costs and cause disruption for millions of seniors this fall. Tell CMS: don’t make changes to popular preferred pharmacy network plans that will stick America’s seniors with higher premiums & drug costs. Learn more. ******

DEPARTURE LOUNGE — “U.S. Ambassador to Mexico to Quit Amid Tense Relations Under Trump,” NYT’s Azam Ahmed in Mexico City: “The ambassador, Roberta S. Jacobson, 57, served just under two years in the post, after her arrival was delayed by a prolonged confirmation process. Analysts say her departure will be deeply felt by both American and Mexican officials — she was one of the most experienced Latin America experts in the State Department, having spent most of her 31 years there focusing on the region.

“‘I have come to the difficult decision that it is the right time to move on to new challenges and adventures,’ Mrs. Jacobson wrote in her letter. ‘This decision is all the more difficult because of my profound belief in the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship and knowledge that it is at a crucial moment.’”

END OF PRUITT’S LUXE LIFE — “Pruitt says he will start flying coach,” by Alex Guillen and Emily Holden: “EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will start flying coach instead of first class at least part of the time, he told CBS News’ Major Garrett Wednesday. Pruitt had been flying first or business class consistently because his security detail was alarmed by hostile encounters while traveling, as POLITICO reported last month. …

“Pruitt on Wednesday said he has instructed his security detail ‘to accommodate those security threats in alternate ways, including — up to and including, flying coach going forward,’ according to an excerpt of the interview released last night.Pruitt said he would fly coach ‘on my very next flight.’ It’s not clear what other ‘alternative’ security measures are available while flying coach.” of Major’s interview

HE’S GOT JOKES! — JOHN KELLY at a DHS event: “The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.” Video from ABC

JUST PUTTING IT OUT THERE… — MATT SCHLAPP on what would happen if his wife MERCEDES SCHLAPP was offered the White House communications director role: “She’s going to be very open to anything the president wants her to do.” Video from MSNBC

ON THE PRESIDENT’S MIND — @realDonaldTrump at 6:53 a.m.: “Many ideas, some good & some not so good, emerged from our bipartisan meeting on school safety yesterday at the White House. Background Checks a big part of conversation. Gun free zones are proven targets of killers. After many years, a Bill should emerge. Respect 2nd Amendment!” … at 7:12 a.m.: “Our Steel and Aluminum industries (and many others) have been decimated by decades of unfair trade and bad policy with countries from around the world. We must not let our country, companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer. We want free, fair and SMART TRADE!”

HAPPENING TONIGHT — Illinois Playbooker NATASHA KORECKI is co-hosting a Illinois gubernatorial Democratic primary forum tonight at 7 p.m. EST alongside reporters from WBEZ. Livestream up for Illinois Playbook

TICK TOCK — “Hope Hicks’ ‘white lies’ testimony becomes a flashpoint for House Intel Committee,” by CBS’ Olivia Victoria Gazis: “In a phone interview on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Florida, fired an opening salvo by saying the line of questioning began with ‘a bullshit question’ posed by a Democrat. ‘The whole line of questioning was a trap,’ said Rooney, who recently announced he would not run for re-election. ‘They sent her down a rabbit hole that she could not get out of. And it was completely unfair.’

“In a separate interview, the Democrat who led the questioning, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, fired back, ‘it’s a question that is asked of witnesses every day across America – and most people don’t have a hard time answering it.’ …

“Swalwell defended the question by pointing to Hicks’ reaction to it. ‘If your response to the question, ‘Have you ever been asked by your boss to lie for him?’ is to take two time outs, we already know the answer to the question,’ Swalwell said, referring to pauses Hicks took to consult with her legal counsel during that round of questioning.”

HEADLINE THE PRESIDENT WON’T LIKE — “Boom in Share Buybacks Renews Question of Who Wins From Tax Cuts,” by WSJ’s Akane Otani, Richard Rubin and Theo Francis: “U.S. companies are buying back their shares at an aggressive pace, stirring debates in Washington and on Wall Street about how savings from corporate tax cuts are being used and who benefits most.Share buybacks announced by large U.S. companies have exceeded $200 billion in the past three months, more than double the prior year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data for S&P 500 companies.”

MOOCH ON THE LOOSE — @JenniferJJacobs: “NEW: ‘Does the president want to lose everyone because of General Jackass?’ Anthony Scaramucci says. The ex-White House comms director tells me he is doing media interviews to get a message to Trump about Chief of Staff John Kelly and ‘horrible’ morale inside the WH.”

THE FIRST DAY BACK IN PARKLAND — “Stoneman Douglas students return; ‘It was odd but it was also calming’,” by The Sun Sentinel’s Scott Travis, Lois K. Solomon and Anne Geggis: “They felt safe, no doubt, but the students who returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday could not ignore the reminders of the tragedy two weeks ago.

“They noticed seats left empty after a gunman slaughtered 17 students and staff on Valentine’s Day. They watched teachers trying to hold back tears. They avoided looking at the freshman building, now closed, where Nikolas Cruz fired over and over with his AR-15 rifle. The school district and law enforcement lined up in force to help the students feel loved and protected. …

“Superintendent Robert Runcie said 95 percent of students — 3,123 out of about 3,300 — showed up for school, which he called ‘outstanding.’”

— LORRAINE WOELLERT: “Missing from the gun debate: Trump’s own experience with concealed carry”: “Over the past two weeks, President Donald Trump has convened a national debate on gun control, holding publicly broadcast meetings with lawmakers and students who survived the Parkland shooting—without mentioning that he’s held a concealed-carry permit. Trump received a concealed-carry permit from New York City and owns handguns, according to a 2012 interview with the Washington Times, but he hasn’t emphasized it since taking office.”

— “Grassley announces hearing on Florida shooting,” by Elana Schor: “The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold an oversight hearing on Mar. 14 examining the Valentine’s Day school shooting that killed 17 Florida students and faculty members, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced Thursday.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN — @KristenhCNN: “Carson is requesting order for $31,000 dining set be cancelled, per statement provided to CNN by longtime advisor Armstrong Williams. Carson says he ‘was as surprised as anyone to find out that a $31,000 dining set had been ordered.’” Pics of the set from CNN’s scoop from Tuesday about the cost of the set

THE OLD GIG — “Exxon Abandons Russian Projects Brokered by Tillerson,” by WSJ’s Michael Amon and James Marson: “Exxon Mobil Corp. is ending ambitious Arctic projects with Russia’s state-controlled energy giant PAO Rosneft because of international sanctions on Moscow, abandoning signature achievements of its former chief executive, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“Exxon said it decided last year to withdraw after the U.S. government imposed new sanctions on Moscow for its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election. Those penalties came on top of U.S. and European sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. … Rosneft said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that it would support the return of Exxon to the projects in the future if it were legally possible.”

ANYONE NOT AFFECTED? — “Equifax finds additional 2.4 million impacted by 2017 breach,” by AP’s Ken Sweet: “Equifax said Thursday that an additional 2.4 million Americans were impacted by last year’s data breach, however these newly disclosed consumers had significantly less personal information stolen. The company says the additional consumers only had their names and a partial driver’s license number stolen by the attackers, unlike the original 145.5 million Americans who had their Social Security numbers impacted. Attackers were unable to get the state where the license was issued, the date of issuance or its expiration date.”

PLAYBOOK METRO SECTION — “D.C. Public Schools graduation rate on track to decline this year,” by WaPo’s Perry Stein: “Fewer high school seniors in the District are expected to receive a diploma in June than the year before, a sharp reversal for a school system that had celebrated a 20-point increase in its graduate rate since 2011. Data released Thursday by D.C. Public Schools show that 42 percent of seniors attending traditional public schools are on track to graduate, while 19 percent are considered ‘moderately off-track,’ meaning they could still earn enough credits to earn a diploma.

“The likely drop in the graduation rate is the latest fallout from an investigation that cast doubt on the validity of diplomas awarded last year. The graduation rate in 2017 was 73 percent, but the probe revealed that one in three graduates received their diplomas in violation of city policy.”

MEDIAWATCH — POLITICO EUROPE: “Ján Kuciak’s last story: Italian mafia’s tentacles reach into Slovak politics: The final, unfinished article by the Slovak journalist murdered with his partner last week.”: “Kuciak was working with his publication,, together with the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism, the Investigative Reporting Project Italy and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, to map how people close to the Italian organized crime group ‘Ndrangheta have settled in Slovakia.” from POLITICO Europe’s Tom Nicholson on Kuciak’s murder

— Jim Welch, former deputy managing editor at USA Today, has joined the Vermont Journalism Trust as special projects editor at VTDigger.

SPOTTED: Michael Flynn this morning outside American Taproom at DCA — pic … Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and an aide in the quiet car on an Acela to New York this morning. They “hopped off the train, presumably to hail a taxi into the city” after the train was indefinitely held in Newark, only for it to leave the station minutes later, per our tipster — pic … Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) separately at Momofuku last night.

SPOTTED last night at a reception for the 10th annual Congressional Hockey Challenge at Pearl Street Warehouse: Reps. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.), Rob Wooley, Anne Marie Lynch and Aliya Meaney, Lori Mezzanotte, Mike Kiely, Alan Gershenhorn, Nick Lewis, Josh Goldberg, Gerrit Lansing, Lesley Elliot, Rob MacGregor, Michelle McGann, Andrew Mills, Mike Wertheimer, Doug and Finny Davenport, Katie Purucker, Cecil Edward, John Way III, Joe Fawell, Matt Flynn, Tim Regan, McCoy Penninger, Ben Shand, Christyn Lansing, Brian Cohen, Andrew Block, Bill Hughes, Libby Wuller, Lindsey Dickinson, John Billings, Matt Levin-Stankevich, and “the only real VIP in the room: The Stanley Cup.” The game is at 7 p.m. on March 15 at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

TRANSITIONS — Tammy Bruce started today as the new president of Independent Women’s Voice. She is the former president of the National Organization for Women. … Tim Keating is now EVP of government operations at Boeing. He was previously the company’s SVP of government operations and is a Clinton WH alum. … Mark Broadhurst joined Chobani as senior director of government affairs. He was previously director of government relations for the U.S. and Canada at Mars. …

… Robert Traynham joined Facebook as director of communications. He was previously VP of communications at the Bipartisan Policy Center. … Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan is the new president of PEN America.

WELCOME TO THE WORLD – Mark Ein, founder and CEO of Venturehouse Group and the new owner of Washington City Paper, and Sally Ein, alum of Mehlman Castagnetti, recently welcomed Chloe Elsa Ein, who joins big brother Charlie, who is 2 and a half years old.

WEEKEND WEDDING — Julia Brannan, an alum of Deloitte’s D.C. federal consulting practice, recently married Brian Keough, an alum of Corporate Executive Board. The couple, who wed in Austin, are finishing up business school at the University of Texas. Brannan is going back to Deloitte in Austin after graduation, and Keough will be a product marketing manager at software company Atlassian. Pic (h/t Brianna Puccini)

****** A message from the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs: Medicare Part D is working for seniors. An important part of the program’s success comes from preferred pharmacy networks that promote quality and lower drug prices. Preferred pharmacy plans keep premiums low and are the most popular choice for seniors enrolled in Part D. But now, CMS is considering changes that would prevent seniors from choosing plans with preferred pharmacy networks. Tell CMS to stop proposed changes to Medicare Part D that would disrupt preferred pharmacy networks and hurt millions of seniors. Learn more. ******

SUBSCRIBE to the Playbook family: POLITICO Playbook Power Briefing York Playbook Playbook Jersey Playbook Playbook Playbook Playbook Playbook Playbook our political and policy tipsheets