By MICHAEL FALCONE (@michaelpfalcone)
- SECRET SERVICE AGENTS SENT HOME FOR EXCESSIVE DRINKING. Three members of an elite counter-assault team were sent home for excessive drinking hours before President Obama was to arrive in Amsterdam this week, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service confirmed to ABC News. Secret Service personnel on official trips are prohibited from drinking alcohol 10 hours prior to duty. The counter-assault team members were drinking Saturday evening and Sunday morning ahead of a Sunday briefing – a violation of the rule, the spokesman said, according to ABC’s ANN COMPTON. The incident, first reported in the Washington Post, comes in the wake of other misbehaving law enforcement officials assigned to prepare the way for a presidential visit. ABC’s JONATHAN KARL reports from Brussels on the latest controversy. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/NT4TZx
- BACKSTORY: The episodes have not involved the plainclothes Secret Service agents who shadow the president wherever he goes, but the uniformed squads that work behind the scenes. The counter-assault teams – usually dressed in all-black combat attire, including a gray-and-white U.S. flag designed not to stand out on their uniforms – are deployed in presidential motorcades a few vehicles behind the limousine and at airports where Air Force One takes off and lands. The counter-assault teams are elite units that undergo rigorous extra training. While uniformed agents surround a president when he is in public, the CAT teams are military-style combat units designed to evacuate those in danger and repel anyone attacking a president.
- ON THE PRESIDENT’S AGENDA: President Obama spent his morning touring the Flanders Field Cemetery, the only American World War I cemetery in Belgium. After participating in a wreath-laying ceremony, the president delivered brief remarks reaffirming the strong U.S.-Belgium relationship, according to ABC’s MARY BRUCE. The president will holds a press conference at the Council of the E.U. and later he will deliver a speech at the Palais Des Beaux Arts, where he is expected to highlight the current events in Ukraine in a broader context. In the evening, Obama departs Brussels for Rome.
ABC’s RICK KLEIN: The latest non-waiver that impacts the substance of the Affordable Care Act relies on the … honor system? According to The Washington Post, procrastinators can still obtain health coverage under Obamacare after the March 31 deadline – the one that we’ve been told could not and would not change – if they check a box saying they tried to enroll before the deadline but didn’t complete the process. This is beyond the pure politics of Obamacare at this point; another waiver, call it whatever you like, won’t be the thing that convinces undecided voters whether the law works or not. But how will insurance companies that have long wanted finality and certainty react? And will the administration commit to releasing numbers to the public when the enrollment deadline comes, if the deadline just got softer than ever?
ABC’s JEFF ZELENY: With the political winds blowing against them, Senate Democrats are trying to fight back on issues as part of their strategy to appeal to working-class voters. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his team unveil their new legislative push today, starting with raising the minimum wage to $10.10. They are branding it, “A fair shot for everyone,” the latest in the party’s effort to call out the Kochs and other big GOP spenders. The legislation isn’t going anyway, with House Republicans firmly opposed to a minimum wage increase, but it will give Democrats a platform to make their case in a year that remains decidedly difficult for them.
ABC’s MICHAEL FALCONE: Former – and potentially future – presidential candidate Rick Santorum is headed back to his “second home” today. No, not Pennsylvania, which he once represented in the U.S. Senate. We’re talking about Iowa. This week Santorum is taking another trip to the Hawkeye State, which looms over the presidential nominating process. His agenda includes interviews on several local television and radio shows as well as an appearance at a fundraiser for Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who is running for Congress. And, according to a source close to Santorum, “he will also be holding private meetings throughout the day with his senior Iowa advisors who planned and carried out his victorious 2012 Iowa Caucus campaign.” It’s another jam-packed itinerary for the former presidential contender who is clearly keeping his options open for 2016. To him, Iowa feels just like home.
ABC’s ARLETTE SAENZ: Two Republican lawmakers will introduce a bill today that would ban online gambling, including the popular game of online poker. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, will unveil a measure Wednesday morning that would reform the Wire Act and would prohibit online gaming. The move will likely be met by criticism from the online poker community, but it will be welcome news to Republican mega donor and casino titan Sheldon Adelson, who wants to eliminate online gambling.
THE FIRST GRANDMOTHER: NOW YOU SEE HER, NOW YOU DON’T. She is rarely seen, but Marian Robinson, mother of first lady Michelle Obama, is a major presence in the Obama household. On this year’s spring break trip to China, Robinson accompanied her daughter and granddaughters Sasha and Malia on the soft-power diplomatic mission, ABC’s ABBY PHILLIP notes. Back in 2008, Robinson was a somewhat reluctant transplant to the White House. Actually, her son, Craig Robinson, described her as having been dragged “kicking and screaming” into the presidential fishbowl. Friends and family told the Chicago Tribune that Robinson, now 76, simply preferred to live in her own home and away from the constant media attention. Since then, however, she has been something of a second mother to her grandchildren and has managed to stay far from the media spotlight that the other Obama family members often live in. Occasionally, however, you can spot her when she accompanies the first family on foreign trips like the one they took to Africa last year, and she can be seen at White House Christmas events, and at the occasional college basketball game to watch son Craig coach the Oregon State team. http://abcn.ws/1dsEKx7
OBAMA SAYS RUSSIA IS ‘REGIONAL POWER,’ NOT AMERICA’S TOP GEOPOLITICAL FOE. With Moscow showing no signs of backing down from the standoff over Ukraine, President Obama yesterday took a swing at Russian President Putin’s status on the global stage — describing Russia as simply a “regional power,” according to ABC’s JONATHAN KARL and MARY BRUCE. “America’s got a whole lot of challenges. Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength, but out of weakness,” Obama said at a joint press conference yesterday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Asked by ABC News if he now agrees with former political rival Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia is America’s top geopolitical foe, Obama pushed back, saying: “Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number one national security to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” http://abcn.ws/1m44PSJ
–MORE FROM OBAMA: “Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades — since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And you know, we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” he added. With roughly 30,000 Russian troops amassed on the border with Ukraine, Obama said the U.S. is “concerned about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.” “We oppose what appears to be an effort of intimidation, but Russia has a right, legally, to have its troops on its own soil. I don’t think it’s a done deal. And I think that Russia’s still making a series of calculations,” he said. http://abcn.ws/1m44PSJ
IOWA SENATE CANDIDATE THREATENS DC WITH ‘CASTRATION’. If conservative U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst gets a chance to come to Washington, she’s promising to make it hurt. In her first television campaign ad, Ernst, who is running in a crowded and competitive Republican primary in Iowa, not-so-subtly threatened to castrate Washington spendthrifts. And she has the credentials to back up her warning, ABC’s ERIN DOOLEY notes. “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” she says in the 30-second spot, as a pig squeals in the background. http://abcn.ws/1ffaNvm
CONGRESS COMING TOGETHER TO OVERHAUL METADATA COLLECTION. Congressional intelligence leaders yesterday introduced bipartisan legislation to end bulk collection of metadata under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including telephone, email and Internet metadata, closely tracking a decision by President Obama to seek congressional approval of the program’s changes, ABC’s JOHN PARKINSON reports. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and Ranking Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger introduced the FISA Transparency and Modernization Act of 2014. The bill also codifies a ban on the bulk collection of firearm sales records, library records, medical records, tax returns, educational records and other sensitive personal records. “We think that we have found a way to end the government’s bulk collection of telephone metadata and still provide a mechanism to protect the United States and track those terrorists who are calling into the United States to commit acts of terror,” Rogers, R-Mich., said. “This is a significant step, and important step. We think the White House is now moving toward our position on this. We’ve been sharing text with them for the last few weeks. We think this is an important step for them, for a bipartisan solution in moving forward so that we can get onto other important matters in the intelligence business.” http://abcn.ws/1j3axEo
PHARRELL’S BOLD PREDICTION ABOUT HILLARY CLINTON. Hillary Clinton hasn’t even announced whether she’s going to run for president in 2016, but according to Pharrell she’s going to win, ABC’s LIZ KREUTZ notes. In the April issue of GQ, the “Happy” singer and Arby-hat-wearing producer and rapper gave a rousing endorsement of the former Secretary of State and made his 2016 prediction clear. “Let me tell you why she’s going to win,” he told GQ. “Everywhere you go in this country, you have red and blue. You got the Democrats; you got the Republicans. You got the Bloods; you got the Crips. You know what else is red and blue? Blood. Blood is blue in your body until air hits it, and then it turns red. That means there’s unity. There’s gonna be unity.” Pharrell cited Clinton’s gender and pro-abortion stance as the determining factors for why he believes she’ll be the next president. http://abcn.ws/1dKC4Ft
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
NUCLEAR WEAPONS 101: HOW TO LAUNCH A WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION: Take a tour of a nuclear launch site with the U.S. Air Force unit that controls it with ABC’s MARTHA RADDATZ. http://yhoo.it/1fizYNA
@PhilipRucker: As @FLOTUS lauds free press, she’s imposed tight media restrictions & no interviews, @Krissah30 reports from China http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/as-first-lady-lauds-free-press-questions-about-her-media-access/2014/03/25/349cc544-c463-4dee-8fdf-cb2c69f949e6_story.html …
@wexler: Panda photo-ops are always a good idea. Almost impossible to screw up. pic.twitter.com/He8Zgkbwy0
@RealClearScott: Lindsey Graham to @RealClearAdam @CHueyBurnsRCP “…what Russia is doing is probably a symptom of a greater problem.” http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2014/03/26/us-russia_tensions_a_key_issue_in_the_midterms_122055.html …
@PostReid: Ex-VA Gov. Bob McDonnell and wife asking for separate trials in federal corruption cases — http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/ex-gov-mcdonnell-wife-ask-for-separate-trials/2014/03/26/2867e87a-b4aa-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html …