Wake Up To Politics - March 2, 2017
Thursday, March 2, 2017
627 Days until Election Day 2018
1,355 Days until Election Day 2020
Good morning! Reporting from WUTP world HQ (in my bedroom), I'm Gabe Fleisher: this is your wake up call.
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White House Watch
- Sessions Failed to Disclose Two Meetings with Russia Envoy At his confirmation hearing in January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) about "evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the campaign." Sessions responded that he was "not aware of any of those activities."
- "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians," Sessions, then a Senator from Alabama (who had chaired the Trump campaign National Security Advisory Council), continued.
- In Sessions' written questionnaire for the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked a more direct question: "Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?" Sessions' response? "No."
- Since that hearing, President Donald Trump has lost a National Security Advisor due to undisclosed contacts with Russain envoys; reports have abounded that a number of other Trump associates are being investigated for contact with Russians, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
- On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Sessions himself spoke twice with Russia's ambassador to the United States during the campaign, which he failed to disclose when asked at his confirmation hearing. According to the Post, "one of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race."
- Even before the new reports, Sessions had been urged by many lawmakers to recuse himself from the investigation of Russia's intervention in the 2016 election, which he oversees as Attorney General. Those calls have only increased in recent hours.
- In a statement on Wednesday, Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores confirmed that Sessions had conversations with the Russian ambassador last year, but said he had done so as a Senator, not as a surrogate for the Trump campaign. "There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer," she said, adding later: "He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign -- not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee." According to Flores, the Russian meetings were just some of the 25+ conversations Sessions held with foreign ambassadors last year.
- However, the Washington Post contacted all 26 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee; none of the 20 respondents had met with the Russian ambassador last year.
- Sessions himself responded later Wednesday night: "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign," he said. "I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false." The caveat, "to discuss issues of the campaign," could become extremely important as this story develops.
- Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a top member of the House Judiciary Committee, joined Democrats in calling for Sessions to step aside and allow a special prosecutor to lead an independent investigation of the ties between Trump associates and Russia. Issa has since dialed back his support for a special prosecutor, but many Democratic lawmakers have demanded Sessions' recusal since the Washington Post report, including Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Intelligence Committee member Rony Wyden (D-OR), House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D-NY), and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA), among others
- At least three leading Democrats have also called for Sessions to resign: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Elijah Cummngs (D-MD), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). “After lying under oath to Congress about his own communications with the Russians, the Attorney General must resign,” Pelosi said in a statement. "Session is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign. There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal, and financial connections to the Russians."
- Republicans have been slow to comment on the reports, but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) seemed to endorse a special prosecutor at a CNN town hall on Wednesday night, if the allegations are confirmed by intelligence agencies. "If there is something there, and it goes up the chain of investigation, it is clear to me that Jeff Sessions, who is my dear friend, cannot make this decision about Trump," he said.
- Already, there are investigations into the Trump/Russia ties being conducted by the FBI and a number of congressional committees. The House Intelligence Committee announced its scope of investigation on the issue on Wednesday; the panel will investigate "cyber activity and other measures" directed against the US. by Russia, as well as "links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns or any other U.S. persons."
- However, the integrity of that investigation has been called into question as well, after a separate Washington Post report that chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) made calls to reporters on the issue at the White house's request.
- Drip Drip Drip Other reports on the Russia saga published Wednesday:
- A New York Times story detailing the Obama Administration's scramble in its last days to preserve intelligence of Russia's intervention in the U.S. election, "to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators."
- A Wall Street Journal story confirming that the FBI has investigated Sessions' contacts with Russian officials during his time advising the Trump campaign. "The outcome of the investigation, and whether it is ongoing, wasn't clear, [sources said]," according to the Journal. "The contacts were being examined as part of a wide-ranging U.S. counterintelligence investigation into possible communications between members of President Trump's campaign team and Russian operatives."
- The President's Schedule President Donald Trump will seek to regain the news cycle today, pivoting back to his Tuesday address to a joint session of Congress, which received positive reviews, as his Administration faces even more questions about its connections with Russia.
- At 10:30am, President Trump will receive his daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.
- At 11:40pm, he will depart the White House for Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, where he arrives at 12:40pm.
- At 1:05pm, the President will participate in an operations briefing aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, which is the lead ship of her class of Navy supercarriers. The ship is currently stationed at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia as a pre-commissioning unit (PCU), expected to enter into commission later this year.
- At 1:25pm, Trump will participate in a roundtable with shipbuilders and servicemembers at the shipyard, before touring the USS Ford at 1:50pm.
- At 2:30pm, the President will deliver remarks aboard the ship. He is expected to repeat many of the same themes mentioned in his address to Congress earlier this week, likely focusing on the call for increased military spending. Trump's budget request is set to include as much as $84 billion in defense spending over the next two years, a dramatic boost that may have trouble receiving congressional approval
- At 3:55pm, Trump will depart Virginia, returning back at the White House at 4:50pm.
- Noteworthy White House press secretary Sean Spicer will not hold an on-camera briefing today, although a less formal gaggle with reporters will be held on Air Force One during the flight back from Langley Air Force base. Spicer will be closely watched for his comments on the Sessions situation.
Capitol Hill News
- Today in the Senate The upper chamber meets at 9:30am today. Following Leader remarks, the Senate will hold 20 minutes of debate on retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson's nomination to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A final confirmation vote at Carson will be held at about 10am, followed by a vote advancing former Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX)'s nomination to be Secretary of Energy.
- Carson, who ran against President Trump in the 2016 primaries, is an accomplished doctor, but has been criticized for a lack of experience with housing policy. He was approved by the Senate Banking Committee in a January voice vote, winning support from two of the Senate's most progressive members: Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
- "I would not have chosen him because of his lack of experience and his often troubling public statements over the last three years," Brown, the ranking member of the Banking panel, said in a statement. "But despite my reservations and my disagreements with some of his positions, I'll give Dr. Carson the benefit of the doubt."
- If confirmed, Carson will become the 17th Cabinet-level official to join the Trump Administration.
- Today in the House The lower chamber convenes at 9am today, and is scheduled to vote on one piece of legislation: the Regulatory Integrity Act, which requires federal agencies to post information about all regulatory actions online. The bill is the latest leg of Speaker Paul Ryan's war on regulations, which he has made a priority in the new Congress.
- Also today: House Republicans will get to see the final draft of their measure to repeal and replace major parts of Obamacare in a meeting in the Capitol basement this morning, according to the Washington Examiner. Bloomberg reported that "the document is being treated a bit like a top-secret surveillance intercept": lawmakers will not be allowed to take copies of the bill language with them and no electronic versions will be sent out. The legislation is scheduled to be marked up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, even though it has not yet been scored by the Congressional Budget Office (a process that may not begin until after the committee vote, which is rare).
- In hiding their latest version until feedback is solicited from members, GOP leaders are hoping to avoid a repeat of recent days, when House conservatives have criticized a leaked draft of the bill. The two most conservative groups in Congress, the House Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee, both announced opposition to the draft due to the inclusion of refundable tax credits for health insurance.
- Today's Number: 43 Million According to preliminary Nielsen ratings data, about 43 million TV viewers watched President Trump's address to a joint session of Congress. How does that compare to similar presidential speeches?
- President Barack Obama's last address to Congress 31.3 million
- President Obama's first address to Congress 52.4 million
- President George W. Bush's first address to Congress 39.8 million
- President Trump's Inauguration 30.6 million
*All Times Eastern
For more on Wake Up To Politics, listen to Gabe on NPR's "Talk of the Nation", St. Louis Public Radio, the Political Junkie podcast, and on StoryCorps; watch Gabe on MSNBC's "Up with Steve Kornacki"; and read about Gabe in Politico, the Washington Post, Independent Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Salon, the Globe, and the St. Louis Jewish Light.