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Wake Up To Politics - January 3, 2018 - First Newsletter of 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, January 3, 2017. 307 days until Election Day 2018. 1,035 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!

Happy New Year! This is the first edition of Wake Up To Politics of 2018, and there's no shortage of news to report on. I hope that you all had a good holiday season and are now ready to buckle up for a busy year in politics. Below, I'll be sharing the storylines I'm watching in the year ahead... but first: the latest Trump tweets, a high-profile Senate retirement, and more.

Trump rachets up North Korea rhetoric on Twitter

It may be a new year, but President Donald Trump does not appear to be backing down from the rising nuclear standoff with North Korea. On Tuesday, he took to Twitter in his latest attempt to taunt the rogue state's leader.

"North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,'" the President tweeted. "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

Trump's comments came after Kim's referred to his button in his annual New Year's Day address on Monday, declaring: "The entire mainland of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear weapons and the nuclear button is always on the desk of my office. They should accurately be aware that this is not a threat but a reality."

But even as tensions rise between the U.S. and North Korea, they relations seem to be cooling between North and South Korea. Kim extended an olive branch to South Korea in the Monday speech, saying that he hoped "for peaceful resolution with our southern border." Early this morning, the two Koreas reopened a border hotline for the first time in almost two years to begin preparations for negotiations on the Winter Olympics, which are set to be held in Pyeongchang, North Korea next month. Kim appeared open to border talks in his New Year's Day speech, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in quickly moved to accept the proposal.

President Trump also weighed in earlier Tuesday in a tweet on the potential negotiations, saying: "Sanctions and 'other' pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!" Trump used his longtime moniker for the North Korean leader, "Rocket man," to refer to Kim.

Trump's Tuesday tweets on North Korea were just two of the 19 tweets he sent in the first two days of the new year, a sign that the President plans to double down on his methods from the first year of his Administration in 2018. On Tuesday alone, Trump used Twitter to comment on the anti-government protests in Iran ("The U.S. is watching!"), urge his Justice Department to punish Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin for her email practices ("Jail!"), take credit for the lack of commercial aviation deaths in 2017, weigh in on the new New York Times publisher, taunt North Korea on the size of his "Nuclear Button" and Democrats on DACA, and preview the "Most Dishonest & Corrupt Media Awards of the Year," among other tweets.

The President said in a tweet on Saturday that he uses Twitter "not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a very dishonest and unfair 'press.'"

--- New year, same Trump: 2018 will bring "full Trump," Axios reported last week, an agenda of renewed focus on "trade, immigration, and North Korea," and other issues in his American First agenda instead of traditional conservative priorities.

Hatch to retire, opening door to Romney bid for Senate

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) announced plans to retire on Tuesday, despite repeated entreaties from President Trump to seek an eighth term, clearing the way for 2012 Republican presidential nominee and Trump critic Mitt Romney to wage a bid for the seat. Hatch, who is third in line for the Presidency as President pro tempore of the Senate (a ceremonial position given to the most senior member of the majority party), is the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history.

He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976; in his decades-long career, Hatch has held the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Senate Finance Committee. Hatch currently holds the Finance gavel, which gave him a leading role in the passage of the Republican tax bill late last year.

"I've always been a fighter. I was an amateur boxer in my youth, and I've brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington," Hatch said in a video message announcing his decision Tuesday. "But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching."

Hatch's retirement paves the way for a likely Senate bid by former Massachusetts governor turned Utah resident Mitt Romney. In the latest sign that he is preparing a campaign to succeed Hatch, Romney changed the location on his Twitter profile on Tuesday: from "Massachusetts" to "Holladay, UT." In a Facebook statement, Romney thanked Hatch "for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation," but did not signal his own plans.

Hatch and Romney have had divergent relationships with President Trump since the now-leader of their party entered the political stage. Despite Trump's unpopularity in Utah, especially among Mormons (both Hatch and Romney are members of the Church of Latter-day Saints), Hatch was an early Trump ally. After backing Marco Rubio in the 2016 primary, the longtime senator endorsed Trump in May 2016; unlike many GOP lawmakers, he never publicly wavered throughout the campaign, building a strong relationship with the future President.

After the passage of the GOP tax bill in December, Hatch called Trump "one heck of a leader" in remarks at the White House, gushing that he will go down in history as one of the best presidents "maybe ever." In a visit to Utah earlier in the month, Trump urged Hatch to run again, saying: "We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a long time to come." The President's comments were widely seen as an attempt to avoid an opening for his longtime critic Romney to move to Washington.

Romney was vocal about his opposition to Trump in the 2016 campaign, calling him a "phony" and a "fraud" in a March 2016 speech. According to Politico, Romney has told prospective supporters of his campaign that "he is more than willing to speak out against" the President during his Senate bid.

--- GOP exodus: House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) also announced plans to retire on Tuesday. He joins dozens of other Republican lawmakers stepping down this year, including three other committee chairs.

Today in Congress

The Senate convenes at 12pm today, to formally open the Second Session of the 115th Congress. Two new senators will be sworn in: Tina Smith (D-MN), who has been appointed to fill Al Franken's seat on an interim basis following his resignation amid allegations of touching women inappropriately, and Doug Jones (D-AL), who won an upset victory in the special election to succeed Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month.

The Jones inauguration changes the party makeup of the Senate, which now consists of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats (including two Independents who caucus with the Democrats). Republicans only have a one-vote margin on all votes going forward, potentially posing difficulties for their agenda.

Jones' special election win was certified by Alabama election officials despite protests from GOP nominee Roy Moore, who was defeated after allegations of sexual misconduct. Smith's appointment was made official Tuesday after Franken formally resigned, nearly a month after announcing he would step down. Smith, who had served as Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota since 2015, will bring the number of women currently serving in the Senate to 22, an all-time record.

--- Who has seniority? Since Jones and Smith are being sworn in on the same day, a list of tiebreakers are used to determine who will be more senior in the Senate's ranking of its members. Because neither has previously served in Congress, as President or Vice President, or as a Governor or Cabinet secretary, the senator representing the state with a larger population (according to the most recent census) takes precedence. Therefore, Smith will be the 99th most senior U.S. senator (representing Minnesota: population 5,303,925) and Jones will be 100th most senior (representing Alabama: population 4,780,127).

The chamber is scheduled to hold one roll call vote today: on confirmation of John C. Rood to be Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Rood, who is currently Senior Vice President of defense contractor Lockheed Martin, formerly served in the State Department and National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

The House will meet at 11am in a pro forma session to adjourn the First Session of the 115th Congress, before meeting at 12pm in a pro forma session to convene the Second Session. No votes will be held in the lower chamber; the House will return to legislative business next week.

Also today: White House legislative director Marc Short and budget director Mick Mulvaney head to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) ahead of the January 16 government funding deadline. According to the White House, the meeting will focus on "budget caps" (Democrats are pushing for "parity" in defense and nondefense spending increases, while Republicans support a greater boost to defense levels), although other issues key to the negotiations (see below) will likely come up.

The President's Schedule

President Donald Trump has two items on his public schedule today: at 11am, he receives his daily intelligence briefing, and at 12:30pm, he has lunch with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis. The latest tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are a likely topic of discussion.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders holds her daily briefing at 3pm.

The Year Ahead

Here are some of the 2018 political storylines to watch:

Shutdown showdown: Lawmakers face a January 19 deadline to fund the government, giving them just over two weeks to find consensus on a number of key disputes. Democrats are demanding that that legislation protecting "Dreamers," undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors, be approved in exchange for their votes on a spending package, but President Trump has repeatedly insisted that any immigration provisions accompany funding for his proposed border wall. Other issues that will be part of shutdown negotiations include funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), reauthorization of a controversial government surveillance program, and disaster aid.

GOP agenda: With a victory on tax reform under their belts, Republican leaders are now divided over which issue to focus on next. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is advocating for welfare and entitlement reform to lead the agenda, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has publicly shot down. Meanwhile, President Trump is planning to release an infrastructure plan in the coming weeks, hoping to attract Democratic support and make his first priority of 2018 a show of bipartisanship. The trio are scheduled to discuss the year's agenda in a Camp David summit this weekend.

Russia probe: Despite the White House's insistence that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is winding down, his probe shows no sign of ending. Mueller's team has already charged four Trump associates; according to reports, more charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort could be coming, while presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and other figures remain central to the probe. Mueller's latest moves come as Trump allies (in the White House, Congress, media, and beyond) have ramped up attacks on the fairness of his investigation.

The midterms: Much of Washington's attention in the next year will be devoted to the midterm elections, as Americans prepare to vote in elections for 33 Senate seats, 39 governorships, and 435 House seats. Democrats, hoping to parlay the President's low approval ratings into retaking the majority in one or both chamber of Congress, currently hold double-digit leads in polling on the generic congressional ballot. Their hopes are buoyed by a spate of GOP retirements, which are expected to continue.

White House turnover: The Trump Administration has seen a historically high rate of turnover, with a number of senior aides resigning over the past year. At least four more officials (deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, National Economic Council deputy director Jeremy Katz, and Office of Public Liaison communications director Omarosa Manigualt) have announced plans to depart by early February. According to media reports, many others are mulling exits after the Administration marks its first anniversary, while previously-excised members of the Trump orbit, from Corey Lewandowski to Anthony Scaramucci, could reportedly return.

Sexual harassment allegations: The #MeToo movement has already claimed three lawmakers (John Conyers, Trent Franks, and Al Franken); two more (Blake Farenthold and Ruben Kihuen) have announced plans to retire and are under investigation. More politicians are expected to face scrutiny for sexual harassment, with speculation abounding that dozens of lawmakers are being examined by media outlets.

I'll be reporting on all of these storylines (and more) in the months ahead, so make sure to continue checking your inbox each weekday morning... and tell your friends and family to join you in "waking up to politics" in 2018 by signing up at wakeuptopolitics.com/subscribe!