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Wake Up To Politics - December 13, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thrusday, December 13, 2018. 417 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 691 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

The Investigations

Cohen sentenced: President Trump's former longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday. Cohen had pleaded guilty to eight charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York, including counts of tax evasion and campaign finance violations, and one felony count of lying to Congress brought by special counsel Robert Mueller's office. Judge William Pauley III described Cohen's actions as constituting a "veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct."

In an emotional apology in federal court, Cohen said his crimes were committed out of "blind loyalty to this man that led to me choose a path of darkness over light," referring to the now-president. "Recently the president tweeted a statement calling me 'weak,' and he was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying," Cohen added. "It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass."

The comments cemented a dramatic turnaround for Cohen, who spent 12 years in Trump's employ and once famously said that he would "take a bullet" for his former boss. Cohen is set to surrender to federal authorities and begin his prison time on Match 6, 2019.

Meanwhile: Prosecutors in New York also announced a key development Wednesday in the investigation of the two hush-money payments Cohen engineered during the 2016 election to women who claimed to have had affairs with Donald Trump. The prosecutors announced that they had reached a non-prosecution agreement with American Media Inc., the parent company of The National Enquirer tabloid, which paid $150,000 to buy the story of Playboy model Karen McDougal before the 2016 election.

The campaign finance violation Cohen pleaded guilty to involved the payments, which were deemed an illegal in-kind contribution to the Trump presidential campaign. The prosecutors said Wednesday that AMI admitted that the $150,000 payment was made "in concert with a candidate's presidential campaign," with the principal goal of "suppress[ing] the woman's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election." Cohen has also said the payment was made to influence the 2016 election, a key fact prosecutors must first establish before declaring it a campaign finance violation.

Prosecutors have previously said that the illegal payments were made "in coordination with at the direction of" then-candidate Trump.

Just in: In a three-part tweetstorm this morning (his first response to the Cohen sentencing), President Trump claimed that the two campaign-related charges Cohen pleaded guilty to "were not criminal" and did not constitute violations of campaign finance laws. "Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence," Trump asserted. He also denied prosecutors' assertion that Cohen's crimes were committed at Trump's behest: "I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law," he insisted.

Coming soon: "Get Ready for Mueller's Phase Two: The Middle East Connection" (The Daily Beast)... "Key lawmakers seek to haul in Trump associates working with Mueller (CNN)... "Incoming New York attorney general plans wide-ranging investigations of Trump and family" (NBC News)... "Trump confides to friends he's concerned about impeachment" (NBC News)

Inside Congress

Pelosi strikes deal with dissidents: House Minority Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) minimized much of the Democratic opposition that had been standing in between her and a second stint as House speaker on Wednesday after agreeing to a proposal setting term limits for Democratic leaders would require her to step aside by 2022.

"Over the summer, I made it clear that I see myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders, a recognition of my continuing responsibility to mentor and advance new members into positions of power and responsibility in the House Democratic Caucus," Pelosi said in a statement.

The proposal would limit the top four House Democrats to serving only three terms in their leadership positions, plus an additional term if they receive the backing of two-thirds of the Democratic caucus. The two terms when Democrats held the House majority from 2007 to 2011 would also be included in the limits for current leaders. The proposal is set to be voted on by the Democratic caucus by February 15; it will likely face opposition from the Congressional Black Caucus and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), but Pelosi said she plans to "abide by it whether it passes or not."

Just after Pelosi's announcement, seven of the Democrats who had previously pledged to oppose her said they would support her speakership bid, likely clearing the California Democrat's path to the House gavel.

Sexual harassment bill: After months of drawn-out talks, House and Senate negotiators reached a deal Wednesday on legislation dealing with sexual harassment in Congress. The legislation would make legislators liable for all forms of harassment in the workplace and require them to reimburse the Treasury Department for harassment settlements, which taxpayers currently foot the bill for. The measure, the first major change in Congress' harassment policies since a string of #MeToo scandals plagued Capitol Hill in recent months, is expected to pass both the House and Senate this month.

2020 Central

Castro forms exploratory committee: Former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julian Castro on Wednesday became the first major Democrat to formally begin exploring a 2020 presidential campaign. "As a kid growing up on the west side of San Antonio, I never thought that I'd one day be making this announcement," he said on Twitter as he launched his exploratory committee. Castro told the Associated Press that he will announce his presidential plans on January 12.

Castro, 44, served as mayor of San Antonio before leading HUD for the last 2½ years of the Obama administration.

--- Follow all the latest movements among 2020 Democrats by checking out Wake Up To Politics' running list of the prospective candidates and their most recent comments...

Inside the White House

Chief of staff selection: The White House announced on Wednesday that Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and one of President Trump's top congressional allies, had been taken out of contention to become Trump's third chief of staff.  

"Congressman Mark Meadows is a great friend to President Trump and is doing an incredible job in Congress," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. "The president told him we need him in Congress, so he can continue the great work he is doing there."

Meadows had been seen as a leading contender for the top White House staff spot; other candidates include Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

--- "What does it take to become Trump's chief of staff? Jared and Ivanka's approval" (Politico)

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White House schedule

POTUS: At 11:45 a.m., President Trump meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At 2:00 p.m., he meets with Governors-elect.

This evening, the president and First Lady Melania Trump will attend two Christmas receptions, one at 5:15 p.m. and another at 8:30 p.m.

--- Also today: President Trump will sit down for an interview with Fox News host Harris Faulkner. According to a Wake Up To Politics count, it will be the 40th interview Trump has granted to Fox News or Fox Business News since taking office.

Congress schedule

Senate: The Senate convenes at 9:30 a.m. today. The chamber will resume consideration of S.J.Res.54, a bipartisan resolution calling for an end to U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. At 1:45 p.m., the Senate will begin voting on a series of amendments to the resolution, before voting on adoption of the measure. The resolution (which was advanced in a 60-39 vote on Wednesday) is expected to pass with bipartisan support, despite opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). However, it is unlikely to become law, which would require passing the House and receive the president's signature before the end of the year. Still, the move is seen as a rebuke of Saudi Arabia in light of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Senate had also been likely to take up the First Step Act, the bipartisan criminal justice package now sanctioned to move forward by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), but Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) has said he will block unanimous consent to vote on the measure, saying he needs more time to read the bill.

--- Also today: Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Dean Heller (R-NV) will deliver their farewell addresses.

House: The House convenes at 10:30 a.m. today. The chamber is scheduled to vote on H.Res.1091, a resolution calling on the Burmese government to release two imprisoned journalists.

--- Also today: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis will brief the full House on Saudi Arabia.

Supreme Court schedule

The Supreme Court does not have a conference or oral arguments scheduled until January 4.

*All times Eastern