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Wake Up To Politics - January 24, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, January 24, 2018. 286 days until Election Day 2018. 1,014 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!

The Latest: Russia Investigation

A lot of news related to the Russia probe has broken in the last 48 hours... Here's a roundup of the latest developments:

Mueller probe: Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators last week, becoming the first Trump Cabinet member to be interviewed as part of the probe, the New York Times reported. In the same story, the Times also reported that former FBI director James Comey, who was leading the Justice Department's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign until being fired by President Trump last May, met with Mueller's team last year "to answer questions about memos he wrote detailing interactions with the president that had unnerved him."

According to the Washington Post, Mueller is increasingly focused on investigating whether Trump attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation and is "seeking to question President Trump in the coming weeks about his decisions to oust national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI director James B. Comey." The report said that Trump's attorneys have crafted "negotiating terms for the president's interview with Mueller's team," which "could be presented to the special counsel as soon as next week." The President's legal team is hoping Trump's interview can take on a "hybrid form," with some questions answered face-to-face and others in a written statement. The Post also reported that in addition to discussing the Flynn and Comey departures, Mueller has also "expressed interest" in Trump's frustrations with Sessions and public pressure on him.

Sessionsis one of few witnesses who can address both legs of Mueller's investigation: potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016, as well as potential obstruction of justice, since he was a key figure both on the campaign and in the Administration.

In addition, NBC News reported on other officials Mueller's team has interviewed as part of the obstrution of justice probe, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Agency director Mike Rogers, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates (who was fired by Trump last January after she refused to enforce his travel ban), and CIA director Mike Pompeo. According to the report, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is expected to meet with Mueller's team by the end of the month.

The network also reported on the details of Flynn's interview with FBI investigators in the first week of the Trump presidency on his contacts with Russian diplomats; according to NBC, he concealed the interview from the White House and President Trump, despite it taking place in his West Wing Office. Trump's aides did not learn of the interviews until Yates informed White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn had lied about his communications with the Russian ambassador.

Finally, CNN reported that former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates has added a prominent white-collar attorney to his defense team, signaling "that there is an ongoing negotiation between the defendant's team" and Mueller's prosecutors. Gates pleaded not guilty to eight charges of money laundering and failure to register as a foreign lobbyist in October, when Mueller's prosecutors indicted him along with his longtime business partner, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. According to the network, Gates' new attorney could be a sign that his "approach to his not-guilty plea could be changing behind the scenes."

FBI personnel: FBI Director Christopher Wray has threatened to resign, Axios reported, over pressure from Sessions to fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Trump has previously indicated on Twitter that McCabe is biased, pointing to his wife's 2015 Democratic state Senate bid in which she received donations from a PAC controlled by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA), a close ally of the Clinton family.

According to the Washington Post, Trump "vented his anger" on the issue at McCabe in person during an Oval Office meeting when McCabe was Acting FBI Director (after Comey was fired, but before Wray had been appointed to succeed him). The Post reported that Trump questioned McCabe in the "get-to-know you meeting" about who he voted for in the 2016 election. McCabe answered that he did not vote; he reportedly said later that he found the meeting "disturbing," and the Post said that it is now "of interest" to the special counsel.

While Wray refuses to dismiss his No. 2 — who is expected to retire soon anyway — the FBI chief did begin this week to make a "fresh start" with his team, as Sessions recommended. Wray announced on Tuesday that he appointed Zachary Harmon to be his chief of staff and Dana Boente to be the bureau's general counsel. Harmon succeeds Jim Rybicki, who was Comey's top aide during his FBI tenure and was interviewed by congressional investigators last week about his knowledge of Comey's claims about his meetings with the President. Boente, meanwhile, is the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; at the beginning of the Trump Administration, he served as Acting Attorney General for nine days following Yates' firing.

Investigations of the investigation: Republican lawmakers have continued their criticisms of the Mueller probe, most recently by pointing to a series of text messages between two top FBI officials who formerly served on Mueller's investigation in which they are very critical of President Trump. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced an internal investigation over the recent admission that the FBI lost the text messages exchanged between the two officials over a five-month period; the other texts were turned over to Congress.

Meanwhile, Republicans continue to urge the release of a memo by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), which details alleged FBI surveillance abuses. The Intelligence panel is expected to vote on whether the memo should be declassified; then, the decision to release it falls to President Trump, who is "inclined to allow" its release, according to CNN.

All of the reports linked to above have been reported from Monday night to this morning; most have been confirmed by multiple news outlets, but only the first outlet to report them is cited.

Immigration talks continue

Congress may have ended the three-day shutdown on Monday, but lawmakers really only moved the deadline back three weeks, meaning negotiations on spending and immigration will continue, as Washington could be back on the brink of a shutdown in early February.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a vote on a bill protecting "Dreamers" if the government remains open after the February 8 deadline, setting into motion renewed talks on an immigration package. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that he has taken his offer to fund President Trump's border wall "off the table," after reportedly making the offer in a meeting with Trump over cheeseburgers last Friday. White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley told Fox News that Schumer "never really offered [wall funding] in the first place."

"Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA," Trump tweeted on Tuesday night. "We must have safety and security, together with a strong Military, for our great people!" Schumer's withdrawal of his wall offer comes as he faces internal discord among congressional Democrats who are upset with his strategy during the government shutdown.

The leading bipartisan proposal is currently the "Gang of Six" bill sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and other senators from both sides of the aisle. However, the White House is strongly opposed to the plan (which provides a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, in exchange for border security measures). Press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that the deal is "totally unacceptable to the President and should be declared dead-on-arrival."

The Rundown

"Manchin Will Seek Re-election but Sends Democrats a Stern Warning" (New York Times): "Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia told colleagues on Tuesday that he intended to run for re-election this year after all, ending an anxiety-making flirtation with retirement and easing Democratic fears that the most conservative Democrat in the Senate was about to effectively hand his seat to a Republican."

"In an interview, Mr. Manchin said he repeatedly expressed his frustration to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and other colleagues, telling them that 'this place sucks,' before finally signaling Tuesday morning to Mr. Schumer’s aides that he would file his re-election paperwork before West Virginia’s deadline on Saturday."

"Pat Meehan says he saw younger aide as 'a soul mate' but denies harassment" (Philadelphia Inquirer):  "U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan acknowledged Tuesday that he had a deep 'affection' for a younger aide and told her last year that he saw her as a 'soul mate,' but said he never pursued a romantic relationship with the woman and, despite paying her a secret settlement, denied her claims of sexual harassment."

"Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, also said that he initially reacted 'poorly' when he found out that the longtime aide, decades younger, had begun a serious relationship with another man and might leave his office. He released a heartfelt letter he wrote to her in May in which he wished her well, thanked God 'for putting you into my life,' and signed it, 'With all my heart, Patrick.'"

..."The report by the New York Times [revealing the settlement] was amplified in part because as a member of the House Ethics Committee, Meehan had been helping review sexual harassment claims against several other representatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan on Saturday quickly removed him from the ethics panel, and the committee on Monday launched an investigation into his actions."

"Senate Confirms Jerome Powell as Federal Reserve Chairman" (Wall Street Journal): "The Senate confirmed Jerome Powell to become the 16th chairman of the Federal Reserve, clearing the way for a new leader likely to continue raising interest rates to keep the nation’s economic expansion on track."

"Mr. Powell, who was confirmed Tuesday by an 84-13 vote, will take over when Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s four-year term as chief ends Feb. 3. She has said she would leave the Fed board of governors once her successor is sworn in."

"Although Mr. Powell’s nomination attracted broad bipartisan support, it also drew opposition from several potential contenders in the 2020 presidential race."

..."Mr. Powell, a Fed governor since 2012, will inherit an economy on the upswing fueled by a booming labor market and strong global growth. His task will be to sustain the economy’s expansion without letting it pick up so much momentum that the Fed would be forced to cool it off with sharp rate increases, risking a downturn."

..."The Fed has been gradually raising short-term interest rates since late 2015 and last year started shrinking its portfolio of assets purchased to bolster the economy during and after the financial crisis...Mr. Powell is likely to stick with Ms. Yellen’s cautious and gradual approach to raising rates."

"Tammy Duckworth is pregnant; will be first senator to give birth" (Chicago Sun-Times): "In the history of the nation, only 10 members of Congress have given birth while in office and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is one of them. Soon Duckworth will be in a class by herself. Duckworth told me she is expecting her second child, another girl, in late April, a few weeks after she turns 50. The birth will make Duckworth the nation’s first senator to have a baby while serving in the chamber."

The President's Schedule: Off to Davos

At 11:45am, President Trump hosts a credentialing ceremony for newly appointed Ambassadors to the United States. Diplomats must participate in the ceremony before beginning their service in Washington, D.C.

At 12:45pm, Trump has lunch with Vice President Mike Pence.

At 3pm, the President participates in a working session with 75 mayors from across the country.

At 8:10pm, Trump departs the White House for Zurich, Switzerland, an eight-hour flight. On Thursday, Trump will be attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, an annual gathering of global leaders in politics and business. The President will be joined by a large delegation of ten Cabinet-level officials and other senior Administration personnel, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House chief of staff John Kelly, National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and others. One person who won't be joining the President: First Lady Melania Trump, who was planning to attend the summit with her husband but has decided to forgo the trip, according to CNN.

Trump will be the first President since Bill Clinton to attend the Davos forum, which has long been vilified by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who derides the attendees as a symbol of the "globalist" enemies of Trump's "nationalist" base. "The President looks forward to promoting his policies to strengthen American businesses, American industries, and American workers" at the WEF, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said earlierthsi month.

Today in the Senate: Azar, Brownback nominations

The Senate convenes at 10am today. The chamber will resume consideration of the nomination of Alexander Azar to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. At 2:15pm, the Senate will vote on confirmation of Azar, followed by a cloture vote on the nomination of Kansas Gov. Samuel Brownback to be Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, followed by a confirmation vote for the nomination of R.D. James to be an Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.

Azar previously led the U.S. division of pharmaceutical drug company Eli Lilly, and formerly served as a top HHS official under President George W. Bush. His nomination was advanced in a 54-43 vote on Tuesday, with six Democrats joining all but one Republican in supporting the nominee. Azar was tapped in November to succeed Trump's first HHS Secretary, Tom Price, who resigned after reporting on his use of private jets.

Brownback has served as Governor of Kansas since 2011; he previously represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 15 years. His nomination to lead the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom has been stalled since July due to Democratic questioning over his stance on LGBT rights, which has created an "awkward" position for his lieutenant governor, who had expected to take over the top spot months ago.

James is a former member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi River Commission, having been appointed to the body by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. In his new post as Assistant Secretary, James would oversee the Army's civil functions, including the Army Corps of Engineers.

Today in the House: Recess

The House is not in session today.