Wednesday, February 15, 2017
629 Days until Election Day 2018
1,357 Days until Election Day 2020
Good morning! Reporting from WUTP world HQ (in my bedroom), I'm Gabe Fleisher: this is your wake up call.
White House Watch
- Questions Linger Over Trump-Russia Connection President Donald Trump continues to face fallout over National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's Monday night resignation, as his White House sends mixed signals about the timeline of Flynn's exit and renewed questions are raised over the new Administration's ties to Russia.
- A bombshell came on Tuesday when the New York Times reported that Flynn's communications with Russia during the transition were not an isolated situation: in fact, campaign staff "and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence official in the year before the election," according to the Times.
- The report reveals that U.S. intelligence agencies first discovered the communications as they discovered that Russia was interfering with the election by hacking the Democratic National Committee, and the agencies "sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election." No such cooperation has been uncovered so far.
- However, the repeated contact raises eyebrows in light of President Trump's past praise of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his comment last summer urging Russian intelligence to steal Hillary Clinton's emails. Flynn is also not the first Trump aide to exit over connections with Russia: campaign chairman Paul Manafort was forced out in August amid revelations that he may have illegally received payments from the pro-Russian president of Ukraine. Manafort is one of the officials whose contacts with the Russians is now being investigated. Flynn is also one of them, although this is separate from the calls with the Russian ambassador discussing sanctions that occurred during the transition and led to his resignation.
- Despite the Times report, White House press secretary Sean Spicer maintained on Tuesday that no one in the Trump campaign had contact with Russian officials. "There's nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period," Spicer said in response to a question from ABC's Jonathan Karl.
- Hours after the Times, CNN released a similar report saying that Trump campaign aides were "in constant contact" with Russian officials, additionally revealing that both President-elect Trump and President Obama were briefed "on details of the extensive communications between suspected Russian operatives and people associated with the Trump campaign and the Trump business."
- Questions also continue over when President Trump knew about Flynn's contact with the Russian ambassador. Spicer said Tuesday that President Trump had known for 17 days before the resignation that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials when he told them that sanctions were never discussed in his calls with the Russian ambassador. Flynn's assurances to Pence led the Vice President to make that claim, now confirmed as false, in a television interview.
- However, Pence spokesman Marc Lotter told reporters on Tuesday that the Vice President did not know he had been misled until February 9, when the Washington Post reported that sanctions were discussed in the calls. NBC first reported about Pence's being kept out of the loop, even as White House officials knew for more than two weeks. Lotter then confirmed the story, adding confusion as to why the President and his top aides took so long to respond to Flynn's actions or to inform the Vice President. The new timeline also contradicts President Trump's comments to reporters on Friday that he had not heard about the Flynn controversy. “I don't know about that. I haven't seen it. What report is that? I haven't seen that. I'll look into that,” he said.
- Ironically, the White House was first informed about the Flynn/Russia calls on January 26, by then-acting attorney general Sally Yates, who was later dismissed by President Trump for refusing to enforce his controversial executive order on immigration.
- In addition, the White House has been unclear as to the nature of Flynn's exit. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway told an interviewer on Tuesday that Flynn "made that decision" to resign; press secretary Spicer said at his briefing that "the president decided to ask for [Flynn's] resignation, and he got it.”
- Michael Flynn might be gone from the National Security Council, but lawmakers from both parties have called for an investigation into his link to Moscow. Democrats have been calling for hearings on the issue for days: "What did the President know and when did he know it," Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings asked on Tuesday, invoking Watergate-era Sen. Howard Baker to demand information on Flynn's "secret [communication] with Russian officials at the same time that Russia was attacking our democracy."
- House Republicans have been resistant towards a congressional investigation; Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has publicly dismissed the need for a review. However, Senate Republicans have signaled plans for an Intelligence Committee investigation of the Flynn calls, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling an investigation "high likely."
- Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) joined a number of GOP senators calling for an investigation; Intelligence Committee member Roy Blunt (R-MO) said Tuesday that an investigation "needs" to happen and went so far as to urge Flynn be forced to testify. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) also released a fiery statement, calling Flynn's resignation "a troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national security apparatus" and invoking Trump's past comments about Putin and the Russian attempts to interfere in U.S. elections.
- The FBI continues to look into the connections between Trump and the Kremlin. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called Tuesday for a Justice Department review, urging Attorney General Jeff Session to recuse himself in favor of an outside counsel.
- What POTUS Says President Trump has tweeted six times this morning about the situation, as of this writing, going after the news media and leakers who are revealing information to them. Here is a sample:
- "The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!"
- "This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign."
- "Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?).Just like Russia"
- "The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!"
- Chaos Overtakes the White House The Flynn resignation adds one more controversy to the list that the chaotic Trump White House faced. The NYT has a good story here looking back at the past 25 days, including this quote from Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military's Special Operations Command: "Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we're a nation at war."
- Also: In addition to Flynn, the young Administration is facing two other investigations, Kellyanne Conway's urging viewers to "go buy Ivanka's stuff," which the Office of Government Ethics reprimanded on Tuesday, and the resident's treatment of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, which House Government Reform and Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced an investigation of on Tuesday.
- The President's Schedule President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today. Trump and Netanyahu will seek to ease ties between their two nations after the latter's frosty relationship with former President Barack Obama for the past eight years. The major topic of the meeting, which has been described by media outlets as likely more symbolic in nature, will be sanctions on Iran's nuclear program. Both Trump and Netanyahu oppose the nuclear deal agreed to by the U.S. and Iran.
- Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also hang over the meeting. Trump's views on the conflict have been similar to Netanyahu's, and may have evolved recently to become even more to the Israeli leader's liking.
- In a call with reporters on Tuesday, a senior administration official hedged on the need for a two-state solution, contradicting two decades of U.S. policy. "It's not for us to impose that vision," the official said, adding later: "A two-state solution that doesn't bring peace is not a goal that anybody wants to achieve," the official said. "Peace is the goal, whether it comes in the form of a two-state solution if that's what the parties want or something else, if that's what the parties want, we're going to help them."
- President Trump has also called for a move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, although the White House has hesitated on that. An official announcement of U.S. plans is expected at today's joint press conference with the two leaders.
Capitol Hill News
- Today in the Senate The House and Senate will both vote today to strike down Obama Administration regulations under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows rules to be overturned by resolutions passed by both chambers of Congress. In addition, resolutions under the CRA are filibuster-proof in the Senate: they only require 51 votes, as opposed to the 60 votes needed to pass most legislation in the upper chamber.
- The Senate will convene at 10am, immediately launching into debate over a resolution overturning a Social Security Administration rule that requires background checks for individuals attempting to purchase firearms who receive Social Security benefits for a mental health condition. The measure is a top priority for the National Rifle Association (NRA); it passed the House earlier this month in a 235-180 vote, with six Democrats voting "yea" and two Republicans voting "nay."
- After voting on the resolution, the Senate will hold a cloture vote on the nomination of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Mulvaney has come under fire for his views on defense spending, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) excoriating his votes for a small military budget at his confirmation hearing last month. "It's nice to hear you think it's important because you've spent your entire congressional career pitting debt against the military and every time for you the military has been less important," McCain said to Mulvaney.
- However, Mulvaney's nomination has been praised by fiscal conservatives. "Mick Mulvaney is the absolute right choice. In Congress, he has been a conservative reformer from day one, proposing solutions to fix the budget process and our regulatory system," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said in a statement in December. "At OMB, he will lead the work he has started to improve the way government does the people's business."
- McCain told reporters on Tuesday that he will likely vote against Mulvaney's nomination; Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are also wavering. If three GOP senators oppose him, Mulvaney's confirmation will be blocked; if two do so, Vice President Mike Pence will be forced to cast the tie-breaking vote.
- If Mulvaney's nomination is advanced today, a final confirmation vote has been tentatively scheduled for Thursday, which would set up a Friday vote on President Trump's choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. Twelve members of the Trump Cabinet have now been approved, after former wrestling executive Linda McMahon was confirmed to lead the Small Business Administration in an 81-19 vote on Tuesday.
- Also today...Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)...actor Ashton Kutcher testifies before the Foreign Relations Committee on modern slavery...and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch will meet with seven more senators, three Democrats and four Republicans.
- Today in the House Meanwhile, the House will also meet at 10am, with votes scheduled on three Labor Department rules to be overturned under the Congressional Review Act: one restricting drug testing of unemployment compensation applicants, and two relating to savings arrangements for non-governmental employees.
- Striking down Obama-era regulations is a top priority of Speaker Ryan's. President Trump signed the first of Ryan's Congressional Review Act resolutions into law on Tuesday. In a statement, Ryan called that resolution "the first of many." The Speaker continued: "Congressional Review Act legislation provides relief for Americans hurt by regulations rushed through at the last minute by the Obama administration. This means freeing up American entrepreneurs, creating jobs, and jump-starting our economy."
*All Times Eastern
For more on Wake Up To Politics, listen to Gabe on NPR's "Talk of the Nation", St. Louis Public Radio, the Political Junkie podcast, and on StoryCorps; watch Gabe on MSNBC's "Up with Steve Kornacki"; and read about Gabe in Politico, the Washington Post, Independent Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Salon, the Globe, and the St. Louis Jewish Light.