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Wake Up To Politics - August 23, 2018 - First Day of School edition

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, August 23, 2018. 75 days until Election Day 2018. 803 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

It's my first day of school! Wish me luck heading into junior year... (can't be that much harder than covering politics!)

Trump White House responds to latest legal woes

Praising his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (convicted on eight charges) and blasting his former personal attorney Michael Cohen (who entered into a plea deal with prosecutors, implicating Trump), President Donald Trump made his first extensive response to Tuesday's major legal developments in a "Fox & Friends" interview with Ainsley Earhardt, which aired this morning.

Trump downplayed his relationship with Cohen, saying he employed the lawyer "more or less part time," while claiming that "what Michael Cohen pled to weren't crimes" and were "things totally unrelated to the campaign." (They were campaign finance crimes.) The president also said "flipping," or testifying against former associates as Cohen did, "ought to be outlawed." Meanwhile, he said that he has "respect" for Manafort, who was found guilty of tax and bank fraud, and wouldn't close the door on pardoning his former campaign chief.

Cohen pleaded guilty to eight charges on Tuesday, including making illegal contributions to the Trump campaign by coordinating payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with the then-candidate." Cohen said that the payments were made "for the principal purpose of influencing the election," and said they took place "in coordination and at the direction" of Trump himself.

In the Fox News interview, Trump claimed that he only knew about the hush-money payments "later on," despite the release of a tape last month in which the president can be heard discussing one of the payments with Cohen before it was made.

Trump repeatedly circled back to his main talking point in the interview, saying: "And what's come out of Manafort? No collusion. What's come out of Michael Cohen? No collusion." In her Wednesday press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders repeated the same response to questions about Manafort and Cohen seven times: "The president did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him."

Trump was on Twitter late into the night, but he did not tweet anything off-message, posting at 1:10am this morning: "NO COLLUSION - RIGGED WITCH HUNT!"

According to multiple news reports, Trump has remained mostly calm since Tuesday's double-whammy, as his aides seemingly await an eruption.

Noting that Trump has so far "resisted lashing out in a dramatic and public way," the Washington Post reported that the president was "more frustrated than furious" behind the scenes on Wednesday, using the day as a "moment for calculation and conversation" with aides. "Trump was mostly calm," the report stated — a "fragile peace" expected by several Trump allies to "pass soon."

According to NBC News, Trump was "calm" aboard Air Force One after the hugely consequential developments took place on Tuesday, but that "there is concern among Trump's advisers...that he could still have an emotional meltdown over the crisis." Per the New York Times, the president "seemed subdued," exuding a "relative calm" that "unnerved some of his aides." According to Politico, aides "privately fear" what the president will "do in the coming days under increasing pressure and with the knowledge that his former fixer has now publicly betrayed him." One former administration official said: "He could explode."

Inside the White House, which The Post described as "the uneasy easy of a political hurricane," the mood was "grim," the Times reports, but "there remained a pervasive belief, rightly or wrongly, that things have looked this bad before." Another New York Times report said that aides in Trump's West Wing are "numbed and desensitized by breathless news cycles blaring headlines about the president's behavior," adding that they have had "trouble assessing how devastating [Tuesday's] legal events might be."

"Well into the president's second year, Mr. Trump's aides have learned to weather, deflect or completely ignore developments that critics of the administration view as insurmountable," the Times reported, leading aides to dismiss the Cohen plea as "just another bad headline lacking the silver bullet that they say the special counsel would need to prove that the president conspired with Russian officials."

"We've been through everything; the 'Access Hollywood' tape when almost everyone walked away," one White House official said to The Post. "This is nothing. He's fine." People in Trumpworld described Tuesday's events to Politico as "just the latest in a series of crises that all eventually blow over and never seem to hurt the president's standing with his base."

There were some signs that Trump's support among congressional Republicans could be fraying: as talk of impeachment buzzed around Washington, senior party leaders "began urging their most imperiled incumbents...to speak out about the wrongdoing surrounding President Trump," according to the New York Times. But mostly, Trump's backers in and out of Congress seemed to stand by him, supporting the unnamed West Wing advisers who told news outlets that Tuesday's events were just another crisis to weather.

"I've always had controversy in my life," Trump said in the "Fox & Friends" interview, "and I've always succeeded."

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The Rundown

Guns in schools: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is "considering whether to allow states to use federal funding to purchase guns for educators," the New York Times reports. According to The Times, such a move would "be unprecedented, reversing a longstanding position taken by the federal government that it should not pay to outfit schools with weapons."

Paris Dennard: President Trump lauded conservative commentator Paris Dennard as "wonderful" this week. But Dennard was suspended from CNN on Wednesday night after a Washington Post report that he was fired from Arizona State University four years ago "for making sexually explicit comments and gestures toward women."

#TXSen: A new NBC News/Marist poll released on Wednesday found Republican Sen. Ted Cruz leading his Democratic opponent, Rep. Beto O'Rourke, by just four percentage points, 49% to 45%, in the Republican stronghold of Texas. O'Rourke had a slight edge among independent voters, 46% of whom backed him, to 45% for Cruz.

Recommended read: "Why Michael Cohen Agreed to Plead Guilty—And Implicate the President" (Wall Street Journal)

  • Interesting line: "Mr. Cohen’s father urged him not to protect the president, saying he didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his name sullied by Mr. Trump, according to a person who was told about the conversation."

White House schedule

POTUS: President Trump has just one event on his public schedule today: an 11:30am roundtable on the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, a measure that he signed earlier this month to the jurisdiction of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). According to the New York Times, the legislation gave CFIUS "more power to investigate, and possibly block, foreign deals."

Also today, per Axios: Trump will meet with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Kushner's Office of American Innovation aide Brooke Rollins to "discuss the prison and sentencing reform package being negotiated between the White House and members [of Congress] from both parties." Although Kushner has been pushing behind the scenes for prison and sentencing reform legislation, gaining support from the Koch brothers as well as Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told Politico on Wednesday that the Senate is unlikely to take up the package before the midterm elections.

VP: Vice President Mike Pence wakes up in Houston, Texas today. At 10:30am, he participates in an event for Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). At 11:20am, he tours the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. At 12:45pm, he delivers remarks "regarding the Administration's space policy priorities." Pence will then travel to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he will tour the National World War II Museum at 4:10pm and headline an event for House Majority Whip Steve Scalies (R-LA) at 6:15pm. Pence will then return to Washington, D.C.

Briefing: No White House press blriefing is on the schedule as of this writing, although they are often added later in the day.

Congress schedule

Senate: The upper chamber meets at 9:30am today. Following Leader reamrks, the chamber will resume consideration of the nomination of Lynn A. Johnson to be Assistant Secretary for Family Support at the Department of Health and Human Services. Johnson is currently the executive director of the Department of Human Services of Jefferson County, Colorado.

At about 10:30am, the chamber will hold a cloture vote on H.R.6157, which combines the appropriations measures for the Departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The $857 billion "minibus" spending package is also expected to receive a vote on final passage today. The legislation's expected approval continues the Senate's unusually speedy passage of the annual spending bills, a notable bipartisan breakthrough on Capitol Hill this year.

Also today: Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will meet with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK), a key GOP vote on his confirmation, as well as Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Chris Coons (DE), Dick Durbin (IL), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), and Tim Kaine (VA). The meetings come as some Senate Democrats have canceled their planned sit-downs with Kavanaugh in light of the Cohen plea deal, saying that the nomination has been sullied by Trump's legal troubles.

House: The lower chamber is not in session today.

Supreme Court schedule

The Supreme Court is on its summer recess.

*All times Eastern