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Wake Up To Politics - February 21, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, February 21, 2018. 258 days until Election Day 2018. 986 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!

Breaking news: Rev. Billy Graham died of natural causes at his home in North Carolina, a spokesperson announced this morning. He was 99 years old. The famed TV evangelist was known as the "Pastor to Presidents," providing spiritual counsel to every Commander-in-Chief since Harry Truman.

Need to Know

Trump moves to ban "bump stocks"

President Donald Trump signed a memorandum Tuesday directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to "as expeditiously as possible" propose regulations banning "bumps stocks and similar "devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns."

The device was used by the gunman who killed 58 people at a music festival in Las Vegas last October to convert his semiautomatic weapon into an automatic weapon. Although no such device was used by the shooter in Parkland, Florida last week, the move comes amid heightened clamoring for action on gun control following that shooting, a movement led by the student survivors.

"I expect that these critical regulations will be finalized, Jeff, very soon," President Trump said to his Attorney General at an event on Tuesday. He added: "We must do more to protect our children."

At her daily briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders signaled that Trump is open to other measures as well. I know background checks are something that the President is supportive of making more efficient and looking at better ways to improve that process," she said. Sanders also told reporters that instituting an age limit for purchasing an AR-15 is "on the table" (the Florida gunman bought one at age 18), and didn't close the door when asked if Trump would endorse an assault weapons ban.

According to Axios, he has told associates "that he doesn’t think high school kids should be able to buy guns, and is open to the idea of imposing a minimum purchase age of 21 for guns like those used in the Florida high school massacre." The report said that while conversations have been "open-ended so far," Trump is inclined to act, and "the images on TV" of students speaking up have impacted him. "Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!" the President tweeted on Tuesday.

Some Administration officials were "taken aback" by the memorandum on "bump stocks," and "wondered privately whether Trump simply wanted to blunt accusations that he wasn’t acting decisively," Politico reported.

The President will continue the conversation on gun control today at a listening session with high school students, parents, and teachers which will include survivors of Parkland and other school shootings. He will then discuss school safety with state and local law enforcement officials on Thursday, as well as sitting down with the nation's governors later this week. Sanders said Trump will then "bring all those conversations together and look for the best path forward, and make sure we’re doing everything we can within every capacity from a state, local, and federal level to make sure incidences like this don’t happen again."

"We're working very hard," the President said Tuesday. "We're going to come up with solutions."

--- View from Capitol Hill: As Democratic and Republican lawmakers call for a renewed push on gun control amid pressure from the Parkland students, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) told the Washington Post that he plans to introduce legislation to expand background checks in the coming weeks. "It does feel like we have a shot at getting a little bit of momentum on background checks,” he said. “We’re going to take a swing at that and I’m hoping we’ll be able to do it.” Toomey co-sponsored a background checks bill with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in 2013; it failed to reach the needed 60-vote threshold, 54-46.

--- View from Tallahassee: The Florida state House voted 36-71 to reject a motion to consider a ban on AR-15 rifles and other semiautomatic weapons like the one used in Parkland, as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School watched from the gallery.

--- View from Parkland: BuzzFeed reports from inside the HQ that Stoneman Douglas students have set up inside one of their parents' living rooms to organize a nationwide movement.

--- Public opinion: 97% of Americans support universal background checks, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday. 83% support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases. 67% support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons. 66% support "stricter gun laws."

--- Also today: CNN is hosting a town hall, "Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action," at 9pm. The event will be moderated by Jake Tapper and offer students, parents, community members, and NRA officials an opportunity to speak with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL). President Trump and Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) declined invitations to attend.

Kushner vs. Kelly: New security clearance policy threatens son-in-law

After the resignation of White House staff secretary Rob Porter thrust the issue under the spotlight, White House chief of staff John Kelly announced last week that a new policy on security clearances would be implemented. One of the changes Kelly made would cut off access to top-secret information for employees whose permanent security clearances have been pending since June.

The policy was widely seen as putting a "bull's eye" on Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, an official told the Washington Post last week. Kushner has reportedly maintained interim clearance for months, but is unlikely to receive permanent clearance due to a range of problems including his failure to disclose contacts with foreign offiicals.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Kushner is "resisting giving up his access to highly classified information," leading to an internal struggle with Kelly. The report said that Kushner feels he is being personally targeted by Kelly's changes, and has insisted that he maintain his current level of access, "including the ability to review the daily intelligence briefing when he sees fit."

According to the Times, Kelly "has made no guarantees." In a statement, the chief of staff said that Kushner would be able to "continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico." But it is unclear if continuing those duties would require him to have the level of access he seeks to maintain.

"I can tell you that no decision within the memo will impact anything that Jared Kushner is working on," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday. She would not answer when asked if he needs classified information to do his job, only repeating that "nothing that has taken place will affect the valuable work that Jared is doing."

According to the Times, Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump have criticized Kelly to the president, who surveyed people at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend about whether he should fire his chief of staff. Kelly's status has been rocky due to his handling of the Porter scandal.

In his memo, Kelly set a deadline for this Friday, February 23, to strip all individuals whose background checks have been languishing of their interim clearance, meaning the chief of staff will have to soon decide whether he wants to take action against the president's son-in-law or bow to his wishes. "You're going to have a showdown on the 23rd," a source told Vanity Fair.

Russia probe: Alex Van Der Zwann pleads guilty

Special counsel Robert Mueller announced another guilty plea in his Russia investigation on Tuesday...

Via NBC News:

"A lawyer who is the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch named in the controversial Donald Trump dossier pleaded guilty on Tuesday to lying to investigators in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe."

"It is not clear to what extent Alex van der Zwaan may be helping Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. A plea agreement signed last week doesn't mention cooperation as a condition."

"Van der Zwaan, the fourth person toplea guilty in the Russia probe, admitted in federal court to the sole count of making false statements about his communications with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates."

"Gates and his longtime business associate, former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, were indicted in October on charges of money laundering, conspiracy and other offenses tied to their lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian political figures."

"Until he was fired last year, Van der Zwaan worked in the London office of powerhouse law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom — where he helped write a report on behalf of the Ukrainian government that critics said sought to justify the false imprisonment of Ukraine's former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko."

"Manafort and Gates were also working on behalf of Tymoshenko's rivals, including ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. The New York Times reported in September that Manafort arranged for the Skadden firm to do the work — and that U.S. prosecutors were asking questions about it."

The Rundown


Middle East: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas presented a plan for re-launching peace talks with Israel in a speech to the United Nations Security Council, which was attended by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Jared Kushner, and other Trump officials.

Trade: President Trump has called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations, a "disaster" and withdrew from the pact in his first week in office. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and 24 other GOP senators urged him to "re-engage" with the deal in a recent letter.

Trump Administration

Trump: President Donald Trump denied the account of a woman who alleges that he kissed her without consent in 2006. "Another False Accusation," he tweeted, saying she was "a woman I don't know, and to the best of my knowledge, never met." The woman, Rachel Crooks, is now running for state House in Ohio; Trump was responding to a profile of her in the Washington Post.

Pence: Vice President Mike Pence was set to meet with Kim Jong Un's sister and other high-level North Korea officials during the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea earlier this month, but the North Koreans cancelled, the Trump Administration said. The Washington Post was first to report on the planned meeting.

HHS: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced plans to allow insurance companies to offer cheaper plans with limited benefits, another step in the Trump Administration's effort to roll back the Affordable Care Act.

--- Jon Cordova, who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Administration, has been placed on administrative leave after reports that his social media accounts "pushed stories filled with baseless claims and conspiracy theories," CNN reported.

VA: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told USA TODAY that he has received assurances from the White House that he will be allowed to stay in place following an inspector general's report that he misused taxpayer dollars on a trip with his wife.

DOJ: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of the Justice Department's Cyber-Digital Task Force, to "identify how federal law enforcement can more effectively" combat cyber threats, including "efforts to interfere with our elections."

Education Department: The Trump Administration said it is considering a plan to allow more Americans to erase student debt when filing for bankruptcy.

Capitol Hill

Russia probe: The House Intelligence Committee was once "an oasis of bipartisanship." Now, divided by internal conflict over its Russia investigation, it "has collapsed into what many lawmakers call unprecedented bitterness and distrust that endangers its core mission of protecting national security, Politico reported.

Democratic division: At least six prominent Democratic lawmakers have rebuked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for her comment describing bonuses received because of the GOP tax plan as "crumbs," Axios reported. According to Politico, there are "widespread disagreements" within the caucus about the party's economic message ahead of the midterms, with many worried about their message being too focused on Trump and about Pelosi being their messenger at all.


Special election: A Democrat won a Kentucky state House special election with 68% of the vote, defeating the widow of a lawmaker who killed himself following allegations that he molested a teenage girl. The victory represented a 45-point swing from the district's vote in the 2016 presidential election, when it went for Donald Trump, 72%-23%, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. The election is one of a "flurry of special elections around the country to fill seats suddenly left open by the #MeToo reckoning," the New York Times reports.

Today in Washington

The President's Schedule

At 11am, President Trump receives his daily intelligence briefing.

At 11:30am, he meets with the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) to discuss the Economic Report of the President, an annual report on the nation's economic progress which must be submitted to Congress by the CEA within ten days of the release of the President's budget request.

At 12:30pm, the President has lunch with Small Business Administration (SBA) administrator Linda McMahon.

At 1:30pm, he meets with trade union leaders.

Finally, at 4:15pm, President Trump hosts a listening session with high school students and teachers.

No White House press briefing is on the schedule.

Vice President's Schedule

At 10am, Vice President Mike Pence leads the second meeting of the National Space Council at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The theme of the meeting will be, "Moon, Mars, and Worlds Beyond: Winning the Next Frontier," and will include "testimonials from leaders in the civil, commercial, and national security sectors about the importance of the United States’ space enterprise." The Vice President chairs the National Space Council, which is made up of a number of Cabinet secretaries and Administration officials.

According to the Wall Street Journal, at the meeting, Pence is expected to announce "new moves promoting private ventures in space, including easing launch rules and putting the Commerce Department in charge of broader deregulation initiatives."

At 12:10pm, the Vice President participates in a tour of the Kennedy Space Center.

At 1:45pm, Vice President and Second Lady Pence depart Florida, arriving in Washington at 3:55pm.

At 4:15pm, the Vice President joins the President for a listening session with high school students and teachers.

Congress' schedule

Both houses of Congress are on recess.


Last week, while reporting on the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Wake Up To Politics was one of many news outlets to cite a statistic from Everytown for Gun Safety that it was the 18th school shooting in the United States of 2018. That statistic was incorrect and should not have been included in the newsletter. According to the Washington Post, just five of them "happened during school hours and resulted in any physical injury"; three were intentional but did not cause injuries; two were unintentional and did not cause injuries; seven occurred outside of school hours.