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Wake Up To Politics - March 14, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Wednesday, March 14, 2018. 237 days until Election Day 2018. 965 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!

First, the huge news that broke just minutes after I pressed "send" on yesterday's newsletter... keep reading for results from last night's special election...

Cabinet shake-up: Trump replaces Tillerson with Pompeo

After months of tension between the two men, President Donald Trump ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, tapping CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place as America's top diplomat.

Trump and Tillerson have had a troubled relationship almost since the beginning of the administration, when the latter left his post as CEO of ExxonMobil to join the government. They differed on a number of key foreign policy issues, from the Iran nuclear deal to North Korea negotiations. Their rift spilled out into the public view in October of last year, when Tillerson declined to deny reports that he called the president a "moron."
"I actually got along well with Rex but really it was a different mindset, a different thinking," President Trump told reporters Tuesday. "We disagreed on things," he said, pointing to the Iran deal as an example: "I think its terrible, I guess he thought it was OK."

On the other hand, Trump praised Pompeo and said their "American First" worldviews were much more similar. "I've worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect, we're always on the same wavelength," he explained. "The relationship has been very good and that's what I need as secretary of state."

Trump's removal of Tillerson had been rumored for months — but in the end, at least one person was surprised: Tillerson. The shuffle was first reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday morning, and soon confirmed in a presidential tweet. "Congratulations to all!" Trump tweeted, announcing Pompeo's move to State and his deputy Gina Hapsel's nomination to be the first female Director of the CIA.

According to the New York Times, Tillerson didn't learn that he was fired until an aide showed him Trump's tweet, although he had been warned on Friday by White House chief of staff John Kelly to cut his African trip short and return to D.C. "You may get a tweet," Kelly said, previewing the ouster. The president later called his secretary of state around noon Tuesday, more than three hours after announcing his firing to the world via Twitter.

"The Secretary had every intention of staying, because of critical progress made in national security... The Secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason," Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein said in a statement.

Within hours, Goldstein was dismissed as well, informed by the White House personnel director that he had been "removed from office." Goldstein was replaced as Acting Under Secretary by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, a White House ally. Trump's purge of the State Department could continue: Tillerson's chief of staff Margaret Peterlin and her deputy Christine Ciccone are rumored to be on the outs as well.

The Trump administration must now undergo prolonged battles to confirm Pompeo and Haspel, adding another roadblock to the president's already-stalled legislative agenda. Haspel has already faced criticism from members of both parties for her role in the CIA's Bush-era torture program, which could hold up her confirmation.

In brief farewell remarks at the State Department on Tuesday, Tillerson announced that he would immediately hand over his duties to Deputy Secretary John Sullivan but would formally remain in office until March 31. His voice quivered as he went through a list of "thank-yous," which included his State Department subordinates, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and all "300 million-plus" Americans. President Trump was notably left off of the list.

Analysis: Tillerson's departure means more change for an administration that has already set records for its turnover. The Secretary of State joins the president's top economic adviser, communications director, deputy communications director, staff secretary, and others in resigning — all in the past five weeks.

Tillerson was not even the only high-level White House exit announced on Tuesday: the Wall Street Journal was first to report that President Trump's personal aide, John McEntee, was fired and escorted from the White House on Monday amid a Secret Service investigation of "financial problems in his background." McEntee, the president's "body man" and one of his longest-serving aides, has already landed at the Trump re-election campaign, where he will serve as a senior adviser for campaign operations.

And more turnover is likely coming: Trump has reportedly felt empowered by his removal of Tillerson and other recent "gut" moves (such as imposing steel and aluminum tariffs and opening up to North Korea talks). A larger shake-up in the top echelon of the administration is possible as soon as this week, with speculation centering around national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

Trump has recently grown frustrated with Shulkin, who is under investigation for a trip to Europe taken last summer at taxpayer expense and has clashed with top appointees at the VA. The New York Times and other outlets reported Tuesday that the president is considering replacing Shulkin with Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Trump met with Perry on Monday, although he did not make a formal offer.

"I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want," Trump told reporters Tuesday.

Go inside the West Wing... recommended reads on Trump's decision to fire Tillerson and what it means for the administration:

  • "Trump unrestrained: Recent moves show president listening to his gut more than advisers" (WaPo)
  • "‘It was a different mind-set’: How Trump soured on Tillerson as his top diplomat" (WaPo)
  • "‘Rex, Eat the Salad’: Inside the Awkward Relationship Between Rex Tillerson and Donald Trump" (WSJ)
  • "The Foreign Capital Rex Tillerson Never Understood: Trump’s Washington" (Politico Magazine)
  • "In Replacing Tillerson With Pompeo, Trump Turns to Loyalists Who Reflect 'America First' Views" (NYT)
  • "Cabinet chaos: Trump’s team battles scandal, irrelevance" (AP)

Pennsylvania special election still "too close to call"

Tuesday's closely-watched special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district is still "too close to call," even after Democrat Connor Lamb declared victory early this morning.

Lamb is clinging to a 641-vote lead, with 49.8% of the vote to Republican Rick Saccone's 49.6%. Absentee ballots from one county have yet to be counted. The Associated Press has declined to declare a winner, with the difference between the candidates so small and a recount possible if it remains under 0.5%.

Still, Lamb declared victory in remarks to his supporters shortly after1am. "It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it," he said to cheers. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) also claimed victory, releasing a statement saying, "These results should terrify Republicans." But Saccone refused to concede, telling supporters: "We're not giving up." The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) promised that it is "ready to ensure that every legal vote is counted."

But even if Saccone scrapes out a narrow win, the results are still an embarrassing blow to Republicans. President Trump carried the deep-red district by 20 percentage points in 2016; former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), who resigned in October, ran unopposed in the last two elections and trounced his opponents in his six previous campaigns.

Lamb's near-victory comes after Republicans poured resources into the district, with outside groups spending over $10 million on the race. President Trump held two rallies with Saccone, and Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and other top surrogates traveled to the district as well.

The results made clear that Democratic enthusiasm and widespread disapproval of Trump's job performance could be translated into votes, presenting another danger sign for Republicans heading into the November midterms.  

However, the outcome is more symbolic than anything: the implementation of a new congressional map means the district won't even exist in November.


Trump: President Trump travels to St. Louis, Missouri today, where he will hold a roundtable at a Boeing plant with local business leaders on the success of the GOP tax bill and headline a fundraiser for Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley.

--- On the ground: Trump's events in St. Louis are only open to limited media coverage... but I have received White House press credentials to cover the President's arrival at Lambert Airport this afternoon. Look for details and photos from the tarmac in tomorrow's newsletter (and follow along on Twitter)!

Pence: Vice President Mike Pence participates in a swearing-in ceremony for Russ Vought as the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget today. Pence cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Vought to the post last month; Vought previously served as vice president of Heritage Action and as an aide on Capitol Hill.

Senate: The upper chamber continues consideration of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, a bipartisan bill to roll back baking regulations set by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. A cloture vote on the legislation is expected to be held today.

House: The lower chamber is set to consider five pieces of legislation today, including the STOP School Violence Act. According to CNN, the bill "would attempt to curb school violence by providing more training for school officials and local law enforcement to respond to mental health crises, as well as, among other things, money to develop anonymous reporting systems for threats and deterrent measures like metal detectors and locks."

Today's vote will be the first Congress has held on major school safety legislation since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School exactly one month ago.

*All times Eastern