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Wake Up To Politics - December 10, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Monday, December 10, 2018. 420 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 694 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

Trump searches for new chief of staff as legal perils increase

After 16 tumultuous months, retired Marine four-star general John Kelly's tenure as White House chief of staff came to a fitting end this weekend, as President Donald Trump upended plans for Kelly to announce his own departure on Monday and instead told reporters himself on Saturday that his top aide would be stepping down at the end of the year.

Kelly joined the Trump White House in July 2017 after six months of service as Secretary of Homeland Security, installed to enforce order and discipline at the West Wing after Reince Priebus' rocky time as chief of staff. However, Kelly's standing with the president quickly shrank as Trump chafed at the controls he set up; by last week, the two men were reportedly no longer on speaking terms. Kelly, like Priebus, faced near-constant speculation throughout his tenure that Trump was about to replace him; as his time in the West Wing went on, Kelly was also increasingly kept out of key decisions on personnel and other matters, according to reports.

With Kelly finally forced out, President Trump is now running into trouble finding a new chief of staff. Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, had long been considered the favorite to succeed Kelly, but he took himself out of consideration on Sunday and announced that he too would be leaving the White House at the year's end. Ayers had reportedly been willing to serve for two to three months on an interim basis, but declined to give the two-year commitment Trump is seeking in his next chief of staff.

"Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House," Ayers tweeted Sunday. "I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause." Ayers is expected to join the pro-Trump outside group America First Policies.

According to the New York Times, Ayers' announcement leaves Trump without any clear Plan B for the position: the president had been eyeing the 36-year-old political wunderkind as Kelly's successor for months, and is now left without a frontrunner to fill what was once considered one of the most powerful jobs in Washington.

According to multiple reports, the candidates under consideration include Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, conservative House Freedom Caucus chairman and North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Trump's 2016 deputy campaign manager David Bossie.

"I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff," Trump tweeted on Sunday. "Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers, a spectacular person who will always be with our #MAGA agenda. I will be making a decision soon!"

However, after being greatly diminished under its two most recent occupants, the chief of staff's job is no longer one of the most sought-after positions in Washington. In addition to Ayers turning it down, Politico is reporting that Mnuchin, Mulvaney, and Lighthizer have also signaled that they would prefer to keep their current spots in the administration.

Trump's difficulty in finding a new leader for the West Wing comes as he seems to be facing increased legal perils. In a sentencing memo for Trump's ex-personal attorney Michael Cohen filed Friday, federal prosecutors directly implicated the president in efforts to buy the silence of women who he allegedly had affairs with. The memo said that when Cohen made two illegal payments to women during the 2016 campaign (deemed campaign finance law violations by the Justice Department), he "acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1," referring to President Trump. According to the New York Times, prosectors are now probing the Trump Organization to find if other executives at the president's family business were aware of the hush-money payments.

Another memo filed Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller described Cohen's 2015 interactions with a Russian national who offered "political synergy" to the Trump campaign, and a third document submitted by Mueller's office accused former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of lying to prosecutors about his interactions with a Russian operative and with Trump administration officials. According to the Washington Post, public records and reporting have now found that at least 14 Trump associates interacted with Russians during the presidential campaign and transition.

The new revelations in the Russia probe have raised renewed public discussions of impeachment among Democratic lawmakers, as House Democrats prepare to take over the chamber's majority next month. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who is the likely incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (where impeachment originates), said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that the recent court filings showed "the president at the center of a massive fraud...against the American people" which amounted to "impeachable offenses."

Meanwhile on Sunday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said on ABC's "This Week" that the filings took the Mueller probe "beyond the stage that led to impeachment proceedings against President [Bill] Clinton," and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the liekly incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS' "Face the Nation" that "there's a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him."

In a statement Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that the court documents told "us nothing of value that wasn't already known." Trump tweeted that the filings totally "clear[ed] the president," a claim that was without evidence.

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White House schedule

POTUS: President Trump has just one event on his public schedule today: a 12:30 p.m. lunch with Vice President Mike Pence. That leaves plenty of "Executive Time" for the rest of the day...

VP: In addition to his lunch with the president, Vice President Mike Pence participates in Kathy Kraninger's swearing-in ceremony as Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) at 5:00 p.m. Kraninger was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, 50-49.

Congress schedule

Senate: The chamber convenes at 4 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., the Senate holds a cloture vote on the nomination of Justin George Muzinich to be Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. Muzinich, who served as policy director on Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential campaign, has served as Counselor to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin since March 2017.

House: The House meets at 12 p.m today. The chamber is scheduled to vote on 11 pieces of legislation:

  1. H.R. 5513 – Big Bear Land Exchange Act, as amended
  2. H.R. 6108 – Preserving America’s Battlefields Act, as amended
  3. H.R. 3008 – George W. Bush Childhood Home Study Act
  4. H.R. 6118 – To direct the Secretary of the Interior to annually designate at least one city in the United States as an American World War II Heritage City, and for other purposes, as amended
  5. H.R. 6665 – Offshore Wind for Territories Act, as amended
  6. H.Res. 792 – Urging the Secretary of the Interior to recognize the historical significance of Roberto Clemente’s place of death near Piñones in Loíza, Puerto Rico, by adding it to the National Register of Historic Places, as amended
  7. S. 245 – Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2017
  8. S. 825 – Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium Land Transfer Act of 2017
  9. S. 2511 – CENOTE Act of 2018, as amended
  10. H.R. 6893 – Secret Service Overtime Pay Extension Act, as amended
  11. House Amendment to S. 2248 – Veterans Benefit and Transition Act of 2018

Supreme Court schedule

The Supreme Court will release additional orders from the justices' Friday conference at 9:30 a.m. today. There is a possibility of releasing opinions at 10 a.m.

*All times Eastern