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Wake Up To Politics - April 6, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Friday, April 6, 2018. 214 days until Election Day 2018. 942 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com. Tell your friends to sign up to receive the newsletter in their inboxes at wakeuptopolitics.com/subscribe!

There are numerous presidential actions and comments that could be my top story today. Instead, I wrap up all of them in the analysis piece below:

Analysis: On a string of decisions, Trump tosses the script

President Donald Trump is in "throw-out-the-script" mode. Literally. Trump was in West Virginia to speak about the Republican tax cuts on Thursday, but "that would have been a little boring," he said. Instead, Trump tossed his prepared remarks into the air and launched into an unprepared, free-wheeling tirade on immigration policy, a topic he had been tweeting about all week. "What the hell," Trump said. "We have to... tell it like it is."

The president criticized numerous parts of the legal immigration system, from the visa lottery to family-based immigration, as well as birthright citizenship. "If you have a baby on our land, congratulations, that baby is a United States citizen," he complained.

Trump also spoke at length about the "thugs" in MS-13, a gang he called "emblematic of evil." He added: "This is the kind of stuff and crap we are allowing in our country, and we can't do it anymore." Trump mentioned his controversial 2015 campaign announcement speech, when he said that Mexico is sending "rapists" to the U.S. The president doubled down on that remark Thursday, claiming that "women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before" when journeying to the U.S. border, without providing evidence.

Trump then blamed crimes committed by immigrants on the Democratic Party. "This is what the Democrats are doing to you, and they like it because they think they're going to vote Democrat," he said. "They're doing it for that reason, and other reasons."

And President Trump repeated his unsubstantiated claim that there had been widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. "In many places, like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that," Trump said. "They always like to say, ‘Oh, that’s a conspiracy theory.’ Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people. And it’s very hard because the state guards their records. They don’t want to see it."

It is hard to point to a time in his presidency when Donald Trump has been particularly disciplined, but his belief in his own ability to make decisions, ignoring the counsel of his advisers, has been even clearer of late. Trump, without a communications director to reel him in since the departure of Hope Hicks, even wandered back to the press cabin on Air Force One after the West Virginia speech to answer wide-ranging questions from reporters.

Trump commented for the first time on the $130,000 payment his attorney Michael Cohen made to porn star Stormy Daniels, denying any knowledge of the "hush agreement" and referring questions to the lawyer. "Well, you'll have to ask Michael Cohen," he said when asked why Cohen made the payment if Daniels' allegations of an affair with Trump are false.

The president also weighed in on the controversies surrounding Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, saying that Pruitt has "done a fantastic job at EPA" and "been very courageous." Asked if he still had confidence in Pruitt, Trump responded: "I think he'll be fine."

Trump's spur-of-the-moment decisions to go off-script Thursday and then chat with reporters came after a week in which his spontaneous comments and actions dominated headlines, sharing space with the Russia investigation that continues to hang over his presidency in the background. The president reportedly surprised his aides when announcing that "we're going to be guarding our border with the military." The next day, he was signing a memorandum deploying the National Guard. Aboard Air Force One on Thursday, Trump was asked how many troops would be sent the border and suggested a range of 2,000 to 4,000, more than expected.

The president's focus on immigration was likely inspired by segments on Fox News. According to a Washington Post piece on his reliance on the cable network, "Aides sometimes plot to have guests make points on Fox that they have been unable to get the president to agree to in person. 'He will listen more when it is on TV,' a senior administration official said."

Without consulting any of his top military brass, President Trump also announced in recent days that "we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon." When Trump did gather his national security team to discuss withdrawing from Syria, his "tone and demeanor raised eyebrows and unease" among the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his Defense Secretary, CIA Director, and acting Secretary of State, according to the Associated Press. The Syria withdrawal is just the latest in a string of foreign policy decisions Trump has made on his own recently, from agreeing to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to congratulating Russian president Vladimir Putin on his re-election and inviting him to the White House, despite a memo from aides urging him, in all-caps, to "DO NOT CONGRATULATE."
Another spontaneous decision Trump has made in recent weeks was the announcement that the United States would impose steep steel and aluminum tariffs, which blindsided lawmakers, the business community, and his own staff. Trump has since heightened his rhetoric on trade; after China announced new tariffs on $50 billion worth of U.S. products on Wednesday, Trump responded on Thursday by issuing a statement directing the U.S. Trade Representative "to consider whether $100 billion of additional tariffs would be appropriate." According to CNN, this was another example of his aides "hurriedly drafting" something to meet the president's instincts.

Just as with the steel and aluminum tariffs, Trump's Thursday statement was met with worries of a trade war from GOP lawmakers. "Hopefully the President is just blowing off steam again but, if he's even half-serious, this is nuts," Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said in a statement. "China is guilty of many things, but the President has no actual plan to win right now... This is the dumbest possible way to do this."

Finally, Trump has increasingly allowed his gut to drive personnel decisions, replacing officials he has butted heads with — National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, among others — with advisers he is more comfortable with (CNBC pundit Larry Kudlow, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and UN Ambassador turned Fox News commentator John Bolton, respectively). "Tired of being told no," Trump has sidelined his chief of staff John Kelly, according to AP, freezing him out and refraining from consulting him on a number of decisions, diminishing Kelly's clout in the White House as a result.

One thing is clear: after 14 months in office, President Trump is finally comfortable and feeling empowered to follow his instincts. "He has been frustrated by the slow pace of governing, [aides] said, and is seizing opportunities now to take action and see immediate results, as he did when he ran his real estate and branding empire in New York," the Washington Post reports.

"To White House insiders," Axios says, "this is the most dangerous phase of Donald Trump's presidency so far."

The Rundown

Breaking in the last few minutes: Russia sanctions... The Trump Administration is imposing new sanctions on 38 Russian individuals and entities, senior administration officials just announced in a conference call with reporters. The sanctions will punish 7 oligarchs with ties to Vladimir Putin and 12 companies they control, 17 senior Russian government officials, a state-owned weapons trading company and its subsidiary, a Russian bank. According to an administration official, the sanctions are "in response to the totality of the Russian government's ongoing and increasingly brazen pattern of malign activity across the world," including attempts "to subvert Western democracies."

Job numbers... The U.S. added 103,000 jobs in March, well short of expectations, while the unemployment rate held steady at 4.1%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics just announced.

WHCD... President Trump does not plan to attend the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner on April 28, the WHCA just said in a statement. However, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders will represent the administration at the head table; last year, Trump and the entire White House staff did not participate.

Pruitt: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has only become more embattled as the week drags on, with each day bringing another raft of negative headlines about his conduct since initial reports on his $50-a-day rental of a D.C. condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist. Here, via the Washington Post, is a list of all of the reasons Pruitt is under fire.

The latest negative story comes from the New York Times, which has reported that at least five EPA officials have been reassigned or demoted, or request new jobs, in the past year after raising concerns about Pruitt's spending on furniture and travel Among the concerns: Pruitt's or his staff's requests for a bulletproof vehicle, expanded security detail, first-class flights, flashing lights and sirens for his motorcade, a charter aircraft membership, and larger desks.


President Trump has no public events on his schedule today. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders holds an on-camera press briefing at 2pm.

Both chambers of Congress are on recess today.

The Supreme Court is not scheduled to meet today.

*All times Eastern