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Wake Up To Politics - February 28, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, February 28, 2018. 251 days until Election Day 2018. 979 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 inboxes at wakeuptopolitics.com/subscribe!

Kushner's security clearance downgraded (and more bad news for the president's son-in-law)

CLEARANCE: Presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was one of several White House officials whose security clearances were downgraded Friday, a number of news outlets reported. All White House aides who had been operating on the highest-level of interim clearance, Interim Top Secret/SCI, were downgraded to Interim Secret, which will prevent Kushner and the others from viewing many sensitive documents. Politico was the first to report the news.

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that Kushner has often been present at meetings where classified information was discussed and had access to the President's Daily Brief (PDB), the most valued U.S. intelligence product. Kushner "issues more requests for information to the intelligence community than any White House employee" outside of the National Security Council, the Post reported at the time.

With this change, according to Reuters, Kushner will no longer have access to the PDB and other highly classified documents. Despite his vast portfolio — which includes overseeing Middle East peace negotiations — Kushner's lawyer Abbe Lowell insisted that his senior position and duties would not be impacted by the clearance downgrade. The changes will "not affect Mr. Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president," Lowell said in a statement.

President Trump told reporters last week that he was leaving the decision about security clearances to chief of staff John Kelly, although the president could grant Kushner or other officials permanent clearance unilaterally. "I will let General Kelly make that decision," Trump said. "I have no doubt he'll make the right decision." The White House first came under scrutiny for the high number of aides with interim security clearances after the resignation of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who had been operating under temporary clearance despite allegations of spousal abuse.

FOREIGN CONTACTS: Later on Tuesday, the Washington Post published a bombshell report that "officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate [Kushner] by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience."

According to the Post, the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel, and Mexico are among the countries "discussing ways to influence Kushner to their advantage." The report also tied concerns over his contacts with foreign officials to his inability to obtain a permanent security clearance. Kushner's contacts have been raised as a point of concern in national security adviser H.R. McMaster's daily intelligence briefings; according to the Post, he has been informed that Kushner had contacts with overseas officials without reporting them. McMaster was reportedly surprised by Kushner's foreign contacts; other White House officials have expressed concerns that Kushner was "naive and being tricked" by foreign officials who were insisting on dealing with him directly.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is also investigating Kushner's conversations with foreign leaders, according to the report.

PARSCALE STATEMENT: Kushner found himself in hot water for another reason on Tuesday, as the Trump re-election campaign released a statement attributed to Kushner praising Brad Parscale, who was just announced as the president's 2020 campaign manager. The statement used Kushner's title as "Assistant to the President," an apparent violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from using their official titles in political activities. The title was later removed from the statement; the White House said it was drafted by Kushner in his "personal capacity."

RAFFEL DEPARTURE: Amid all of this bad press, the White House also announced on Tuesday that Kushner was losing one of his closest backers in the West Wing. Axios and other outlets reported that deputy communications director Josh Raffel will be leaving the White House; he served as the spokesperson for many of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump's initiatives, including the Office of American Innovation and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

According to CNN, he was "both inside and outside the White House for his hard-nosed style, taking a combative stance in defending Kushner and Ivanka Trump from the scrutiny and controversy they have courted in their time at the White House." In other words: at a time when Kushner needs a lot of defending, he will be without the ally who often played that role.

2018 Central

MS-SEN: State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R-MS) is expected to announce at a rally in his hometown of Ellisville, Mississippi today that he will launch a primary challenge this year against Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS).

The ultra-conservative McDaniel challenged Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) in 2014, and came within 0.5 percentage points of toppling the longtime lawmaker. McDaniel's entrance into the race against Wicker adds Mississippi to the list of states that are expected to see brutal primary campaigns, including Nevada — where Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) faces a challenge from Danny Tarkanian — and Arizona — where establishment-backed Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) faces former state Sen. Kelli Ward and former sheriff Joe Arpaio.

McDaniel, like Tarkanian and Ward, is supported by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, whose political influence has mostly diminished but continues to wage a fierce, multi-pronged battle against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

In a Tuesday night tweet calling the Mississippian a "great supporter," President Trump declared that he is behind Wicker "in his re-election all the way!"

TN-SEN: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) will not run for re-election after all: the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who has sparred with President Trump in the past, announced last fall that he wouldn't run for a third term, but had acknowledged recently that he was reconsidering after conversations with colleagues. Corker's chief of staff told Politico that the senator "really believes the decision he made in September was the right one and is going to be leaving the Senate at the end of the year.”

Corker's decision clears the path to the GOP nomination for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who is running for the open seat, and averts the threat of an ugly primary battle between the two.

PA-18: The Cook Political Report has moved the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district from Lean Republican to a Toss Up. Polls show the contests between state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-PA) and Democratic prosector Conor Lamb tightening; they are vying to fill the seat left vacant by former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), who resigned due to a sex scandal. President Trump won the district by 20 percentage points in 2016.

--- More: How the Cook Political Report arrives at its race ratings

REDISTRICTING: Pennsylvania Republicans asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday for an emergency stay blocking the newly-drawn congressional map unveiled by the state Supreme Court earlier this month. The GOP said that the court "usurp[ed] the power of the Pennsylvania General Assembly" by drafting a map themselves; the court did so after ruling that the legislature's version was an example of unconditional partisan gerrymandering. Experts say that the court's map would shift many districts closer to the Democratic column. "The Nine" have previously declined to join the Keystone State's redistricting dispute, and it is seen as unlikely that they will do so this time. Over the weekend, President Trump urged the Pennsylvania GOP to appeal to the Supreme Court "ASAP."

The Russia investigation

HICKS TESTIMONY: White House communications director Hope Hicks testified before the House Intelligence Committee for about nine hours behind closed doors on Tuesday. According to the New York Times, Hicks did not invoke executive privilege, but she declined to answer questions about her White House tenure. "We got Bannon-ed," Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) told CNN, referring to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who refused to answer questions beyond the 2016 campaign. According to reports, Hicks did answer some questions on the presidential transition period. The Times also reported that Hicks said she her work for the president "has occasionally required her to tell white lies," although she insisted that he had not lied about matters related to the Russia probe.

ELECTION HACKING: The U.S. intelligence community had "developed substantial evidence that" websites or voter registration systems in seven states were compromised by Russian-backed operatives during the 2016 campaign, NBC News reported. According to the report, President Barack Obama and other officials were aware of the evidence but not inform the states involved, which were Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin.

NSA Director Mike Rogers was questioned on the U.S. response to Russian election hacking attempts at a congressional hearing on Tuesday. Rogers testified that he would need to be granted authority by President Trump or Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to "disrupt Russian cyber threats where they originate," adding that he had not been directed by either man to do so. "I believe that President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion there's little price to pay here, and that therefore [he] can continue this activity," Rogers told lawmakers.

TRUMP'S FINANCES: Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators "have recently been asking witnesses about Donald Trump's business activities in Russia prior to the 2016 presidential campaign as he considered a run for president," CNN reported. According to the report, witnesses have been questioned about Trump's timeline in deciding to run for president, "potentially compromising information the Russians may have had about him," and his attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Earlier this week, CNN reported that congressional investigators have made a "concerted decision" to refrain from probing Trump's finances.

INTERESTING: Axios' Jonathan Swan tweets... "Am told Robert Mueller himself walked into the room several times to talk to Steve Bannon. Not surprising given Bannon's seniority but it's quite rare for Mueller to attend interviews."

LEGAL DEFENSE FUND: Trump allies have created a fund, the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, to cover legal expenses for administration officials and associates who have been "caught up" in the Russia investigations being conducted by Mueller and congressional panels. Trump and his family aren't eligible for the funds, nor are any individuals who have been charged with a crime, according to Bloomberg.

FISA PROBE: Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters Tuesday that the Justice Department's inspector general is probing the FBI's applications for surveillance orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Sessions' announcement comes after the firestorm set off by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), who alleged in a controversial memo that the FBI abused its authority in seeking a surveillance warrant targeting former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Trump Administration legal victories on immigration

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the Trump Administration's appeal of a decision upholding the DACA program that shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation. But on Tuesday, the administration scored two legal victories regarding immigration...

DETAINEES: The Supreme Court ruled that U.S. authorities can indefinitely hold people in immigration detention without giving them periodic bond hearings. The 5-3 decision, with the conservative justices in the majority and Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself, reverses a circuit court ruling that required immigrants held in custody be given hearings every six months. Justice Stephen Breyer read part of his dissent from the bench, a rare move that generally follows more contentious cases.

THE WALL: U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel issued a ruling upholding the administration's legal authority to construct the president's proposed Mexican border wall. Curiel's decision rejected a lawsuit by the state of California and environmental groups, which claimed that the proposed wall violates federal environmental rules. During the 2016 campaign, Trump accused Curiel of being biased against him due to the judge's Mexican heritage.

--- "Big legal win today," President Trump tweeted about the decision Tuesday night. "U.S. judge sided with Trump Administration and rejected the attempt to stop the government from building a great Border Wall on the Southern Border. Now this important project can go forward!"

Gun control: The Latest

AGE LIMIT: Republican lawmakers have largely shied away from President Trump's proposal to raise the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21. “We shouldn’t be banning guns from law-abiding citizens," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said at a press conference. "We should be focusing on making sure that citizens who should not get guns in the first place don’t get those guns."

The White House has sent conflicting signals on whether the president still supports the idea: press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that he "still supports raising the age limit to the age of 21 for the purchase of certain firearms," but her deputy Hogan Gidley told Fox News the day before that such a proposal would be "very inconsistent" since people can vote or go to war at age 18.

HAPPENING TODAY: Students return to classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida today for the first time since the mass shooting that took 17 lives there two weeks ago... major gun retailer Dick's Sporting Goods announced that it is ending the sale of all assault-style rifles in its stores...

The Trump Administration

HUD: Aides to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson purchased a $31,000 dining room set for the secretary's office late last year, the New York Times reported Tuesday. Earlier in the day, the Guardian reported that senior HUD career official Helen Foster has filed a complaint with a federal whistleblower agency, alleging that she was demoted after refusing to sign off on funds for an expensive redecoration of Carson's office.

FOGGY BOTTOM: U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun is expected to retire on Friday after 30+ years of government service, leaving the State Department without a key player in nuclear talks with North Korea. Yun joins a number of other top officials who have left the agency since Secretary Rex Tillerson took its helm last year.

DOJ: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday that it would take the side of local officials in hundreds of lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of opioids, targeting the companies for their role in the drug crisis. Sessions said that the Justice Department would join cities, counties, and medial institutions in seeking repayment for the cost of the opioid epidemic.

--- Sessions' announcement comes amid a new push to combat the opioid epidemic. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is set to begin work on opioid legislation today, with chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) hoping to have the full House vote by Memorial Day, according to The Hill. Meanwhile, Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and other senators from both sides of the aisle introduced CARA 2.0 on Tuesday, a bill that would "waive limits on physicians treating addiction patients and place restrictions on how long a provider could initially prescribe opioids to patients," according to Roll Call.

BOEING DEAL: President Trump has struck an "informal" deal with Boeing for a pair of new Air Force One planes, Fox News reported. The White House said that "thanks to the president's negotiations," the $3.9 billion deal "will save the taxpayers more than $1.4 billion."

TRUMP ALUMNI: Former deputy national security adviser Dina Powell is returning to Goldman Sachs as a member of the bank's management committee, focused on "enhancing the firm's relationships with sovereign clients around the world." Powell was a partner at Goldman before joining the Trump Administration, where she worked closely with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

--- Omarosa Manigault, who previously served as Assistant to the President and communications director at the White House office of public liaison, ended her stint on CBS' "Celebrity Big Brother" on Sunday. She did not emerge as the victor of the reality show contest, but made clear to the Hollywood Reporter that she isn't leaving TV. "Baby, I'm booked!" she said. Manigault, who said on "Big Brother" that she is considering writing a "tell-all" on her time in the Trump Administration, will return to the small screen tonight with an appearance on CBS' "Late Show with Stephen Colbert."

Today in Washington

TRUMP'S SCHEDULE: At 10:15 am, President and First Lady Trump depart the White House for the U.S. Capitol, where they will arrive at 10:20 am.

At 11 am, the Trumps and Pences will attend the arrival ceremony preceding the lying in honor of the late Rev. Billy Graham. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will also participate in the service marking the arrival of Graham's casket.

At 11:55 am, the President and First Lady depart the U.S. Capitol for the White House, where they will return at 12 pm.

At 3 pm, the President and Vice President meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers "to discuss school and community safety." According to Politico, Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) are among those expected to attend. Cornyn and Murphy are the chief sponsors of the Fix NICS Act, to improve the background checks system; Manchin is co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill to expand background checks; Feinstein has been the author of a number of bills banning assault rifles and other weapons.

BRIEFING SCHEDULE: White House press secretary Sarah Sanders will hold the daily briefing at 2 pm.

SENATE SCHEDULE: The Senate convenes at 12:45 pm today. At 4:30 pm, the chamber will vote on confirmation of Russell Vought to be Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, followed by a cloture vote on the nomination of A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr. to be a U.S. District Judge for the District of South Carolina. The Senate voted 49-48, along party lines, to advance Vought's nomination on Tuesday.

The Senate is on a confirmation spree this week, taking up six presidential nominees; the chamber confirmed Lisa Branch on Tuesday, making her President Trump's 14th appeals court judge. The push comes as White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made the speed of confirmations a focus at the top of her Tuesday briefing. "The obstruction is so out of control," Sanders said, specifically pointing to Trump's nominee to be Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, the former U.S. spokesman at the United Nations. "Senator Schumer’s hyper-political delay on Mr. Grenell puts our national security, and America’s foreign policy interests, in jeopardy," she said.

HOUSE SCHEDULE: The House is not in session today; the chamber canceled the rest of its votes for the week while Rev. Graham lies in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Graham, who died last week at age 99, is only the fourth private citizen to lie in honor at the Capitol, following Rosa Parks in 2005 and two Capitol Police officers killed in the line of duty in 1998.

*All times Eastern