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Wake Up To Politics - March 29, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, March 29, 2018. 222 days until Election Day 2018. 950 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!

Trump taps his doctor to replace VA secretary Shulkin

President Trump announced the ouster of another Cabinet secretary on Wednesday, dismissing embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and nominating presidential physician Dr. Ronny Jackson to replace him.

Shulkin's exit has been expected for weeks, as he accrued negative headlines about infighting at the VA and a trip to Europe he took last summer on the taxpayer's dime. Shulkin was the only Obama holdover in Trump's Cabinet, having served as Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health in the previous administration; he was also the only Trump Cabinet officer to be confirmed 100-0. Although Trump originally held him in high regard, the president has been souring on Shulkin for months. He now joins a long list of administration officials to depart in recent weeks, in a personnel shake-up that has also claimed the president's communications director, chief economic adviser, personal aide, national security adviser, and Secretary of State.

Jackson, meanwhile, is a Navy rear admiral who has served on the White House Medical Unit since 2006 and as Physician to the President since being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013. He is a decorated diver and well-respected doctor, but his nomination has raised questions about his preparedness to lead the Veterans Affairs Department.

The VA is the second-largest bureaucracy in the entire U.S. government, made up of 360,000 employees and wielding a $186 billion annual budget. The agency has also been plagued by mismanagement in recent years, with administrations of both parties struggling to efficiently provide health care to millions of veterans.

Ahead of what could be a bruising confirmation battle, lawmakers and veterans groups didn't commit to supporting Jackson, who was not one of the names frequently mentioned as a possible replacement for Shulkin.

Ultimately, Trump's choice reflects a pattern in his recent staffing decisions: prizing loyalty and personal chemistry, as well as an individual's abilities on TV, over their résumé. According to the Washington Post, Trump developed a bond with Jackson, who checks in on him at least once a day, travels regularly with him, and often spends time in the White House residence. "Jackson jokes around with Trump, which the president likes, and Trump often tells friends how smart Jackson is," the report said.

According to CNN, another factor that boosted Jackson was his performance at a January briefing on the president's health, when the doctor took questions for over an hour in front of television cameras. At the briefing, Jackson famously declared that Trump is in "excellent" health and had "great genes" that could allow him to "live to be 200 years old" with a healthier diet. "He's like central casting -- like a Hollywood star," the president told donors at Mar-a-Lago last month, according to CNN.

According to the Post, Shulkin learned that he was being removed on Wednesday afternoon, informed over telephone by White House chief of staff John Kelly. Trump unveiled his selection of Jackson to the public via Twitter, announcing his nominee and that Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie would serve as Acting Secretary until Jackson is confirmed. "I am thankful for Dr. David Shulkin’s service to our country and to our GREAT VETERANS!" he added in the tweet.

Shulkin is not departing quietly: he penned a New York Times op-ed claiming that the VA "has become entangled in a brutal power struggle" and lambasting the "toxic, chaotic, disrespectful, and subversive" climate in Washington. The piece, titled "Privatizing the V.A. Will Hurt Veterans," was also a parting screed against privatizing the agency, as some of have encouraged. "[Some administration officials] saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed," Shulkin wrote. "That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”

"As I prepare to leave government," he ended the piece, "I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country."

Inside the White House

Shulkin's departure only adds to the appearance of chaos that emanates from the Trump administration. Other West Wing developments...

Hicks: White House communications director Hope Hicks' last day on the job was Wednesday, one month after announcing plans to resign. According to CBS News, White House aides are unsure what to expect in the post-Hicks era, as the president parts ways with one of his closest advisers and confidantes. The battle to replace Hicks has turned "cutthroat," New York Magazine reports, with White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp and Treasury Department spokesperson Tony Sayegh locked in fierce competition for the post. However, Politico reports, Trump is slow-walking the effort to replace Hicks, asserting more control over White House messaging himself and increasingly acting as his own communications director.

Kelly: White House chief of staff John Kelly is losing clout, per Bloomberg; the outlet reports that Kelly wasn't with the president when he decided to appoint John Bolton as national security adviser or during a controversial call to Russian president Vladimir Putin last week. Kelly's status has been falling since the domestic abuse scandal involving former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, and his absence at the president's side during recent key decisions only underscores his loss of influence inside the West Wing, as Trump has been increasingly emboldened to follow his gut and make decisions solo.

Kushner: Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, is likely to see his role reshaped amid a shake-up of Trump's national security team, according to the Wall Street Journal, with his influence over foreign policy expected to diminish with the arrival of Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the president's nominee to lead the State Department.

The Russia investigation

Pardons: John Dowd, who led the president's outside Russia probe legal team until resigning last week, discussed the idea of Trump pardoning former advisers Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort with their lawyers last year, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. According to the Times, "the talks suggest that Mr. Trump's lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal" in a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller, who has indicted both men.


A federal judge refused to dismiss an emoluments lawsuit against President Trump on Wednesday...  President Trump called Roseanne Barr on Wednesday to congratulate her on the reboot of "Roseanne"... The president has escalated his attacks on Amazon... Attorney General Jeff Sessions is on the new cover of TIME Magazine, a reward that has come back to haunt past Trump advisers... North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in are set to meet on April 27 in a historic summit...


Trump: After five consecutive days without any public events, President Trump travels to Richfield, Ohio today for an address on his infrastructure initiative at the Local 18 Richfield Training Site. Trump will fly from Ohio to Palm Beach, Florida, likely to begin a long Easter weekend at Mar-a-Lago.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stressed Trump's infrastructure plan at her Wednesday briefing. "Following on the success of tax reform, infrastructure is the next piece of the President's successful economic agenda," she said. The Trump administration often pivots to infrastructure during particularly chaotic weeks.

Pence: The vice president has no public events scheduled today.

Congress: Both chambers of Congress are on recess.

*All times Eastern