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Wake Up To Politics - March 1, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, March 1, 2018. 250 days until Election Day 2018. 978 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!


LATEST FROM MOSCOW: "Russia has tested an array of new strategic nuclear weapons that can’t be intercepted, President Vladimir Putin announced Thursday, marking a technological breakthrough that could dramatically increase Russia’s military capability, boost the Kremlin’s global position and also raise Western concerns about a potential renewed arms race in the 21st century." (AP)

Trump sides with Democrats in freewheeling gun control meeting

President Donald Trump convened an hourlong meeting of lawmakers on school safety Wednesday, and invited the press to watch the group hash out the issue. In the meeting, Trump largely sided with Democrats, endorsing the merger of a number of gun control proposals, while shooting down attempts to add a GOP priority to the legislation.

"One bill is nicer than having seven bills," the president said. He proposed taking the Fix NICS Act, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), as the base bill to move forward. The legislation improves the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) but does not expand background checks. Trump then seemed to endorse merging the Corynyn-Murphy measure with the background checks bill authored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), which failed in 2013 due to little Republican support. "Can you merge it in?" Trump asked Toomey, who responded: "Absolutely. Easily."

President Trump even seemed open to including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)'s assault weapons in the bill, asking for the provision to be added to the comprehensive legislation as well. He also repeated his support for increasing the age limit to purchase weapons from 18 to 21 years old, questioning why such a measure wasn't included in the Manchin-Toomey bill. "You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA, right?" he said to Toomey.

In the meeting, Trump seemed to confirm the worst fears of the NRA, calling for law enforcement to take firearms from people considered dangerous without going through courts. "I like taking the guns early," he said. "Take the guns first, go through due process second."

When House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), himself a victim of a past mass shooting, attempted to insert the NRA's top legislative priority into the discussion -- implementing concealed carry reciprocity, which would require states to recognize concealed carry permits from other states -- Trump immediately shot him down. "You'll never get this passed," the president said. "If you add concealed carry to this, you'll never get it passed. Let it be a separate thing."

Democrats grinned as they sat around the president, while Republicans were plainly shocked at what they were hearing. But would the guns debate simply be a replay of the immigration issue, when President Trump held a similar televised meeting with lawmakers and seemed to lurch to the left on DACA, before being steered to the right by his advisers? Would Trump truly advocate for the positions he had endorsed at the meeting, or simply allow his aides to back away from them?

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) referenced a phrase coined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who once differentiated "Tuesday Trump" (the president who supported bipartisan positions at the immigration meeting) from "Thursday Trump" (the president who abandoned those ideas later in the week). "It crossed everybody's mind, is this the 'Tuesday Trump' or the 'Thursday Trump?' It's a Wednesday, so I don't know. We'll see."

Longtime Trump aide to depart White House

White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of President Trump's closest and longest-serving aides, will step down from her post in the coming weeks, she announced on Wednesday. The news was first reported by the New York Times.

Hicks' upcoming departure will cap a uniquely meteoric rise in American politics. Just six years ago, the former model was working at a PR firm in New York; at age 29, she now occupies a desk just outside the Oval Office. While shying away from the spotlight, Hicks became known as the president's closest confidant, playing a role comparable to that of another daughter. She had served as Trump's press secretary during the 2016 campaign and for the Trump Organization before that, staying by the president's side longer than any of his other advisers, outside of his family.

Just one day before Hicks announced plans to step down, she spent nearly nine hours on Tuesday testifying before the House Intelligence Committee as part of the panel's Russia investigation, reportedly telling lawmakers that she had occasionally told "white lies" in service to the president. According to the Times, Hicks' departure had been in the works for weeks, and was not related to the testimony. Officials told the Washington Post that Hicks was simply "burned out" by her long tenure in the Trump orbit. The press-shy Hicks has recently come under scrutiny not only for her role in the Russia probe, but also in the White House's response to the resignation of staff secretary Rob Porter. Hicks was dating Porter when allegations of domestic abuse against him emerged, and coordinated early statements from White House officials defending him.

In the constant revolving door of staffers coming and going in the Trump White House, Hicks' exit is likely to hurt the president, leaving him lonely and without a key sounding board, surrounded by aides who he barely knows and doesn't trust. "Hope is outstanding and has done great work for the last three years. She is as smart and thoughtful as they come, a truly great person," President Trump said in a statement. "I will miss having her by my side but when she approached me about pursuing other opportunities, I totally understood. I am sure we will work together again in the future."

In her own statement, Hicks said that "there are no words to adequately express my gratitude to President Trump."

The Russia investigation

What we learned about the Mueller investigation on Wednesday...

HACKED EMAILS: Special counsel Robert Mueller's team is questioning witnesses "about whether Donald Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release," NBC News reported. According to the report, the line of questioning suggests that Mueller is probing the ties between WikiLeaks and Trump associates such as Roger Stone, and whether Trump was aware that WikiLeaks had obtained hacked emails from the Clinton campaign and DNC.

SESSIONS: As part of his probe into a potential pattern of obstruction of justice, Mueller has also been investigating Trump's private comments about Attorney General Jeff Sessions in late July and late August of last year, when Trump issued a series of tweets targeting Sessions, the Washington Post reported. Mueller is apparently attempting to "determine whether the president’s goal was to oust Sessions in order to pick a replacement who would exercise control over the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump associates during the 2016 election." The report also detailed Trump's derisive references to Sessions as "Mr. Magoo," a bumbling cartoon character, and his anger about his attorney general's insufficient loyalty.

--- Public feuding between Sessions and Trump continued on Wednesday, as the president criticized his attorney general once again on Twitter. The president said: "Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!" Trump's tweet came after Sessions' announcement that Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz, who was appointed in 2012, will probe the FBI surveillance abuses alleged in a memo by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA).

--- Sessions issued a rare response to the attack, pushing back on Trump's characterization in a public statement. "We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary," Trump said. "AsIong as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution."

--- Spotted: Sessions dining with his deputy Rod Rosenstein and the No. 3 DOJ official, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, at a Washington restaurant Wednesday night. Axios, which reported first on the dinner, called it a "show of solidarity" among the department's leaders amid public battering from the president.

HICKS: A comment made just after the 2016 election by White House communications director Hope Hicks is being probed by Mueller's team, CNN reported. A former Trump aide who has been interviewed by the special counsel's office told the network that the investigators asked about Hicks' denial to the New York Times that "any campaign representatives...were in touch with any foreign entities" during the campaign, which is now known to be incorrect.

MANAFORT: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded not guilty to new charges of tax evasion and bank fraud from special counsel Robert Mueller in a federal court appearance. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson scheduled a trial date for September 17, just before the November midterm elections.

Kushner, Inc.

In Wednesday's morning newsletter, I rounded up the list of negative news stories from Jared Kushner's Tuesday: reporting on his security clearance being downgraded, foreign officials attempting to manipulate him, a potential violation of campaign law, and the loss of a top ally. The next day was no better for the presidential son-in-law turned senior adviser. Here's what Wednesday brought for Kushner:

NYT: "Kushner's Business Got Loans After White House Meetings" "Early last year, a private equity billionaire started paying regular visits to the White House. Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo Global Management, was advising Trump administration officials on infrastructure policy. During that period, he met on multiple occasions with Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, said three people familiar with the meetings. Among other things, the two men discussed a possible White House job for Mr. Harris."

"The job never materialized, but in November, Apollo lent $184 million to Mr. Kushner's family real estate firm, Kushner Companies. The loan was to refinance the mortgage on a Chicago skyscraper."

"Even by the standards of Apollo, one of the world's largest private equity firms, the previously unreported transaction with the Kushners was a big deal: It was triple the size of the average property loan made by Apollo's real estate lending arm, securities filings show."

"It was one of the largest loans Kushner Companies received last year. An even larger loan came from Citigroup, which lent the firm and one of its partners $325 million to help finance a group of office buildings in Brooklyn."

"That loan was made in the spring of 2017, shortly after Mr. Kushner met in the White House with Citigroup's chief executive, Michael L. Corbat, according to people briefed on the meeting. The two men talked about financial and trade policy and did not discuss Mr. Kushner's family business, one person said." (New York Times)

WSJ: "Jared Kushner's Ties to Banks Under Scrutiny" "The New York State Department of Financial Services asked several banks for information about their relationships with Jared Kushner and his finances, people familiar with the information requests said."

"The department, which regulates New York banks and some international banks that do business in the state, sent inquiries last week to firms that include Deutsche Bank AG and Signature Bank, these people said."

..."The inquiries, which are expansive and comprehensive, seek information about Mr. Kushner’s individual finances and those related to his family’s real-estate company, Kushner Cos., these people said. The inquiries ask for information from banks about their relationships with Mr. Kushner, including his bank accounts and loans, they said." (Wall Street Journal)

The Trump Administration

VA: A top aide to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin "has actively lobbied Capitol Hill to demand his boss’s resignation," USA TODAY reported. According to the report, John Ullyot, the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the VA, asked a Capitol Hill staffer to urge lawmakers to call for Shulkin's ouster. Ullyot denied making such a request.

OMB: Vice President Mike Pence cast his 9th tie-breaking vote since taking office on Wednesday, sealing the confirmation of Russell Vought as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Vought, a former Heritage Foundation official, came under scrutiny for past writings on Islam; he was confirmed in a 50-49 party-line vote, with Pence needed because of two Republican absences. No vice president has cast more than nine tie-breaking votes in their entire tenure since the 1870's.

Interior Department: An aide to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned Wednesday after a CNN review found that she "repeatedly shared conspiracy theories, made anti-Muslim comments and shared anti-LGBT sentiments on social media." Christine Bauserman worked on President Trump's 2016 campaign before becoming a special assistant to Zinke at the Interior Department.

HUD: House Oversight Committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) on Wednesday requested that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson turn over "all documents and communications pertaining to allegations by a high-ranking civil servant that she was the target of reprisals after sounding the alarm on agency spending," according to Politico.

Today in Washington

TRUMP'S SCHEDULE: At 10 am, President Trump receives his intelligence briefing.

At 11:45 am, he hosts a meeting on school safety.

At 12:30 pm, he has lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

At 2 pm, he meets with members of the Senate.

Also today: President Trump is expected to announce new tariffs on steel and aluminum tariffs, despite uncertainty among senior administration officials and Republican congressional aides. "Our Steel and Aluminum industries (and many others) have been decimated by decades of unfair trade and bad policy with countries from around the world," Trump tweeted this morning. "We must not let our country, companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer. We want free, fair and SMART TRADE!"

SENATE SCHEDULE: The Senate convenes at 10 am. Following leader remarks, the chamber will resume consideration of the nomination of A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr. to be a U.S. District Judge for the District of South Carolina.

At 11:45 am, the Senate will hold a confirmation vote on Quattlebaum, as well as procedural votes advancing the nominations of Karen Scholer to be a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Texas and Tilman Eugene Self III to be a U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Georgia.

At 1:30 pm, the Senate will vote to advance the nomination of Terry Doughty to be a U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Louisiana.

HOUSE SCHEDULE: The House will meet at 1:30pm for a pro forma session. No votes will be held, out of respect for the late Rev. Billy Graham, whose casket will lie in honor in the Capitol rotunda for a second day.

*All times Eastern