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Wake Up To Politics - February 14, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, February 14, 2018. 265 days until Election Day 2018. 993 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 inbox at wakeuptopolitics.com/subscribe!

As White House struggles to quell Porter scandal, another Infrastructure Week derailed

"Infrastructure Week" has become something of a running joke in Donald Trump's Washington. The first time that the White House declared an "Infrastructure Week," it was June, and the attempt to focus on the president's plan was quickly derailed by former FBI director James Comey's explosive testimony before a Senate committee on his interactions with Trump. The Trump Administration tried again in mid-August; that week was taken over by the protests in Charlottesville, and doomed once Trump referred to "very fine people on both sides." The press conference where Trump made those remarks was intended to highlight an executive order on the infrastructure permitting process.

Finally, after more than a year, the Trump White House unveiled its long-awaited infrastructure plan on Monday,to little fanfare. The proposal was declared "dead-on-arrival," faced bipartisan criticism, and Washington quickly lost attention in another attempted "Infrastructure Week." Instead, attention has remained squarely on White House chief of staff John Kelly as he has tried (and failed) to quell questions over the resignation of former top aide Rob Porter amid spousal abuse allegations. It has now been exactly one week since Porter exited the West Wing for the last time, making the scandal one of the few storylines to receive extended attention in the Trump era.

The White House timeline on when they were aware of the allegations continued to fall apart on Wednesday, as FBI director Christopher Wray became the latest contradict it. In testimony before Congress on threats facing the United States, Wray told lawmakers that the FBI updated the White House three times last year on Porter's background checks; according to the New York Times, the bureau informed top officials in July that their investigation had uncovered abuse allegations by both of his ex-wives, and then offered additional information in November.

After the new year, in January, Wray said that the FBI ended its investigation and decided to deny Porter a permanent security clearance. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had claimed on Monday that Porter had been allowed to keep his position -- which included managing the Oval Office paper flow, requiring the handling of classified information -- because the investigative process was "ongoing." Last week, Sanders' deputy Raj Shah also said that the FBI's investigation was "ongoing" when the Porter allegations became public.

Sanders on Tuesday said that the White House personnel security office, which handles security clearances, "had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House" because the office's internal investigation was continuing, even as the FBI's probe ended." Yet, on Monday, Sanders had said that the security clearance process is "handled by our lawenforecement and intelligence community" and "doesn't operate within the White House."

Wray's testimony also raised questions as to how quickly the White House acted once they were made aware of the allegations. Sanders said Monday that Kelly and other senior officials did not learn "of the extent of the situation involving Rob Porter" until the allegations became public, because the FBI's reports had only gone to the personnel security office, despite reporting that Kelly, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, and White House counsel Don McGahn had all known of the allegations for months. Sanders said Tuesday that she couldn't tell reporters "with 100% certainty" if the FBI's concerns had been passed on.

If these officials were aware of the allegations, they were willing to ignore them, as CNN reported that Porter was "involved in serious discussions" about receiving a promotion, potentially to become deputy chief of staff. During these conversations, Kelly was reportedly aware of the allegations against Porter and of his delay in receiving permanent security clearance because of them.

According to the Washington Post, Kelly has told staff members to spread the story that he took action to remove Porter "within 40 minutes of learning" last Tuesday that the allegations were credible, but the public record seems to contradict that account: Kelly issued a statement praising Porter on Tuesday, and reportedly urged him to "stay and fight."

The White House even set up an off-the-record meeting with Porter and a group of reporters last week to allow the departing aide to defend himself, Politico reported. At the meeting, Porter attempted to explain the photograph of his first ex-wife with a black eye, saying that she "accidentally bruised" it.

Meanwhile, Kelly's clout within the West Wing seems to be slipping. "Kelly does not enjoy the confidence of an increasing number of his subordinates, some of whom said they believe that the retired four-star Marine Corps general has misled them," the Washington Post reported, as a "growing number of aides" blame him for the "bungled handling" of the allegations. One White House official anonymously described Kelly to the Post as "a big fat liar," adding that his handling of the scandal "amounts to dereliction of duty."

Still, Kelly stands by his management of the affair. "It was all done right," he told the Wall Street Journal, saying he wouldn't have done anything differently.

The Trump White House seems to have returned to its chaotic early days under the leadership of Reince Priebus, the president's first chief of staff. That era of the administration was marked by leakingand internal backbiting, as speculation dragged on that Trump was considering replacing Priebus. Once again, Trump is reportedly floating new chiefs of staff.

According to Bloomberg, several White House officials "no longer believe [Kelly] can survive the Porter episode. "Kelly must resign," former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci tweeted on Tuesday, saying that the chief of staff "almost certainly knew about credible allegations of domestic abuse against Rob Porter at least 6 months ago - then recently forced others to lie about that timeline."

Potential candidates to succeed Kelly reportedly include White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

According to CNN, "no decision" has been made by President Trump to replace Kelly, but "conversations over who could succeed him have heated up," and "scrutiny increased" after Wray's comments. A White House aide told the Post that the FBI director's testimony was "a killer" moment.

"The Kelly coverup is unraveling right before our eyes," a White House official told Axios.

Trump's infrastructure plan was unveiled just two daysago, but has already slipped away from the public eye once again, as the Porter scandal has dominated the spotlight. It's only Wednesday (morning), and yet another "Infrastructure Week" has already been quickly overshadowed.

Senate immigration debate: The Latest

The Senate's promised open-ended debate on immigration has failed to produce much of anything. The chamber voted Monday to clear a procedural hurdle to move towards consideration of the issue, but had yet to vote on any proposals at the end of its session Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sought to begin the process with a GOP amendment targeting "sanctuary cities," but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) objected, calling for the chamber to start with the bill representing White House framework and the bipartisan McCain-Coons proposal.

“The proposal [McConnell] just offered does not address the underlying issues of this debate, why we’re here," Schumer said. "It doesn’t address 'Dreamers' nor does it address border security." In turn, Republicans accused Senate Democrats of delaying the "open process" by refusing to vote on their amendment. "[Democrats] know what they're against, but don't know what they are for," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters.

A final vote on proceeding to a "base bill," the vehicle for an eventual immigration package, is expected to take place today. McConnell and his lieutenants have made clear that they do not intend to continue the debate past Thursday, increasing pressure on lawmakers to find a proposal that could receive the support of 60 senators. Negotiations continue among moderate senators of both parties, as no measure yet introduced is seen as being able to reach the 60-vote threshold.

Senators are currently divided over legal immigration: both sides agree to instituting a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers," individuals who arrived in the U.illegallylly as minors whose protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expire on March 5, and to increased funding for border security. But Democrats refuse to endorse President Trump's proposed limits on legal immigration; his framework includes the elimination of the diversity visa lottery program and dramatic changes to "family-based immigration."

A senior administration official told Axios that Trump "will veto any bill" that doesn't include his legal immigration demands, which are unlikely to be approved by the Senate in full. Politico reports that Trump "is refusing to budge from his immigration framework," which Republicans view as a compromise that conceded enough to Democrats by offering 1.8 million "Dreamers" a pathway to citizenship.

--- Also... Adding confusion to the debate, a second federal judge blocked Trump's decision to end DACA on Tuesday, which could extend the March 5 deadline. The Supreme Court is set to consider on Friday whether to take up the Trump Administration's appeal of the first judge's ruling. More from Reuters...

Buzz Quote

"The United States is under attack." -- Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, warning that he expects Russia to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections during Senate testimony on Tuesday.

--- Related: "Trump still unconvinced Russia meddled in 2016 election," CNN reports, even as intelligence leaders remained firm in their assessment during the Senate hearing. FBI director Christopher Wray testified that Trump had not directed the intelligence community to take any steps to address Russia's actions.

The Rundown

Stormy Daniels: President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen said Tuesday "that he had paid $130,000 out of his own pocket to a pornographic-film actress [Stormy Daniels] who had once claimed to have had an affair with Mr. Trump," the New York Times reports. Cohen said that he was not reimbursed by the Trump Organization or the Trump campaign for the payment, and stressed that it was not an in-kind campaign contribution. He would not say whether Trump, who denies Daniels' claims of an affair, was aware of the payment. The payment had previously been reported by the Wall Street Journal but unconfirmed by Cohen.

--- Related: Cohen is "writing a book about his life and relationship with the president," the Daily Beast reported, and it will touch on the Stormy Daniels and Russia scandals.

Pruitt travel: Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt continues to face questions over his use of taxpayer funds to fly first class. "I'm not involved in any of those decisions," Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union-Leader on Tuesday, placing blame on his security detail and chief of staff. Pruitt said flying first class was necessary for security reasons. "We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment," he said. "We've reached the point where there's not much civility in the marketplace and it's created, you know, it's created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat."

The Washington Post first reported Monday on Pruitt's luxury travel habits at the taxpayer's expense. CBS News also reported Tuesday on a June flight from Milan, when Pruitt had to receive permission to fly on a non-U.S. carrier; he flew business class, costing taxpayers at least $7,000.

--- Related: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is under fire for questions over his wife's travel, USA TODAY reports.

2018 Central: Two Republicans who previously announced that they were not planning to run for Senate this year may now be changing their minds. A spokesperson for Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) on Tuesday confirmed reports that he was re-thinking his decision to retire. "The senator has been encouraged to reconsider his decision and is listening closely," the spokesperson said, adding that "people across Tennessee have reached out to Senator Corker with concerns about the outcome of this election because they believe it could determine control of the Senate and the future of our agenda." According to the New York Times, Corker's jumping back in the race hinges on getting the green light from President Trump, who he has feuded with in the past.

Also Tuesday, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) said he is "respectfully reconsidering" his decision not to challenge Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) in November. Cramer is seen as a top GOP recruit, and many Republicans were disappointed when he decided to take a pass on the seat.

--- Related: A new Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that "Republicans have erased the Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot" and "President Donald Trump’s approval rating equaling the percentage of voters who disapprove of his job performance." This reflects other polls that have shown GOP gains since passing tax cuts at the end of last year.

The President's Schedule

At 11am, President Trump receives his intelligence briefing.

At 11:30am, he meets with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on infrastructure.

At 2:15pm, he participates in a working session on the "Opportunity Zones" created by the GOP tax bill.

And finally, at 3pm, the President signs two pieces of legislation into law: the DHS Blue Campaign Authorization Act and the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Assault and Safe Sport Authorization Act.

Sarah Sanders will hold today's White House press briefing at 1pm.

Today in the Senate

The Senate convenes at 10am and continues debate over immigration.

Today in the House

The House convenes at 10am. The chamber is set to vote on four pieces of legislation:

  • the Protecting Consumers’ Access to Credit Act
  • the TRID Improvement Act
  • the Hamas Human Shields Prevention Act
  • a resolution "calling on the Department of Defense, other elements of the Federal Government, and foreign governments to intensify efforts to investigate, recover, and identify all missing and unaccounted-for personnel of the United States."