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Wake Up To Politics - May 26, 2017




I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It's Friday, May 26, 2017. 529 days until Election Day 2018. 1,257 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!

Two housekeeping notes... first off, I'll be taking my second semester finals next week (wish me luck!) As of now, my plan is to not do any newsletters during next week, or at least not every morning, but then to return for two weeks before leaving for camp. Longtime readers of this newsletter will recall that I take off during the summers while I go to camp in the North Woods, without access to Wi-Fi or political news. I am sorry about these absences, and hoping that not too much news breaks while I'm gone, which seems like an impossible wish these days.

Secondly, I have a much more exciting announcement: you may see a familiar face if you read the Styles section of Sunday's New York Times. The story will likely drop later today online, so keep your eyes out! More on this later; for now, the news:

Gianforte Wins Montana Special Election Despite Assault Charges Republican Greg Gianforte emerged victorious in the special election for Montana's at-large U.S. House seat on Thursday, despite being charged with misdemeanor assault for body-slamming a reporter the day before.

According to the Associated Press, Gianforte won with 50.2% to Democrat Rob Quist's 44.1% (99% of precincts are reporting). Although the former won with a comfortable margin, the race was much closer than Montana's 2016 presidential election (which Donald Trump won by 20%) and 2016 House election (which now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke won by 15%).

As with previous special elections resulting from Trump Cabinet appointments, the race received outsized national attention and dollars, seen as a barometer of voters' feelings on the young Trump Administration. The Montana race take a violent turn on Wednesday after The Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs attempted to ask Gianforte a question about the Republican health care plan; according to an account by Fox News reporters who witnessed the incident, the candidate responded by [grabbing] Jacobs by the neck with both hands and [slamming] him into the ground behind him" before moving on top of Jacobs and "punching the reporter," yelling, "I'm sick and tired of this!"

Heeding the calls of Republican leaders, Gianforte apologized to Jacobs by name in his victory remarks on Thursday night. "Last night I learned a lesson," the Congressman-elect said. "Last night I made a mistake, and I took an action that I can't take back. And I'm not proud of what happened." He continued: "I should not have treated that reporter that way. And for that I am sorry Mr. Ben Jacobs. That's not the person I am."

Gianforte also apologized to the Fox New reporters who witnessed the altercation and to all Montanans. "When you make a mistake, you have to own up to it," he said, not addressing his campaign's response on Wednesday, which was to offer a contradicting account proved false by an audio recording. "That's the Montana way."

Due to the misdemeanor charge, Gianforte is required to appear in court sometime in the next two weeks; he faces a maximum punishment of six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Earlier in his speech, Gianforte described his win as "a victory for all Montanans," adding: "Tonight, Montanans are sending a wake-up call to the Washington, D.C. establishment...Montana sent a strong message tonight that we want a Congressman who'll work with President Trump to make Montana and America Great Again."

National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) celebrated the GOP win in a statement, calling the election "another hard-fought victory" for Republican and a rejection of "Nancy Pelosi and liberals in Washington." In contrast, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) said in a statement that the Gianforte win was "tainted" by the assault charges. "Greg Gianforte is unfit to represent Montana," he said. "There’s no question in my mind Gianforte should not be sworn into office."

With Gianforte's victory, House Republicans will now hold 239 seats, while Democrats hold 193. Three vacancies remain in the lower chamber, all of which will be settled in special elections in the next month; of the trio, the most closely-watched will be the June 6 runoff in Georgia's 6th congressional district, where Democrat Jon Osoff and Republican Karen Handel are locked in a close race. There is intense pressure on Democrats from their base to win the seat and prove that they can turn activist energy into electoral success, while Republicans are also hoping for a victory to prove the popularity of President Trump and his agenda.

Reports: FBI Investigating Kushner Meetings with Russian Officials White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law, is now "a focus" of the FBI's investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to a number of reports on Wednesday. According to NBC, which was first to report the news, "investigators believe Kushner has significant information relevant to their inquiry."

Unlike Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Kushner is not formally a "subject" of the FBI probe; he is also not suspected of a crime. However, he is "the only current White House official known to be considered a key person in the probe," according to the Washington Post.

The Post also reported that the FBI investigators are interested in Kushner's December meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Moscow banker Sergey Gorkov. "Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings," attorney Jamie Gorelick, who represents Kushner, said in a statement on Wednesday. "He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry."

CNN added that Kushner's role in the Trump campaign data operation and relationship with Michael Flynn are also "points of focus that pertain to Kushner," as well as his contacts with Russians.

--- Also on Thursday, the FBI refused a congressional request for ousted director James Comey's memos on his meetings with President Donald Trump. House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) demanded all "memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings" of all Trump-Comey interactions following a bombshell New York Times report detailing a Comey memo that reveals Trump asked him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn. In a letter responding to Chaffetz, the FBI said the agency needed to consult with special counsel Robert Mueller before handing over the memoranda; in turn, Chaffetz asked for documents on Comey's interactions with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, setting a June 8 deadline.

--- The Senate Intelligence Committee also stepped up its Russia probe on Thursday, voting unanimously to give "blanket authority" to chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and vice chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) to issue subpoenas related to the investigation. The move will speed up the committee's probe, one of many looking into Russia's actions in the 2016 U.S. election.

Trump Travel Ban Heads to Supreme Court After Appeals Court Ruling In a 10-3 ruling on Thursday, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision to halt President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigration from six Muslim-majority countries.

Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote in his 205-page majority opinion that the order "drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination," citing statements by White House officials (and the President's campaign statement urging a "total and complete shutdown" of Muslim immigration to the U.S.) to call the government's "asserted national security interest" a "post hoc, secondary justification." Judge Paul V. Niemeyer penned a dissent, arguing that the order "is entirely without constitutional fault."

Trump's first "travel ban" was issued in an executive order just one week after being sworn in; just hours after taking effect, the order was blocked by a series of judges. The revised order currently before the courts was issued in March and never took effect due to judicial rulings; it would halt the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and enforce a 90-day ban on visas to citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalaia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The 4th circuit ruling was the first on the updated order from a federal appeals court; the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is also considering a lawsuit on the ban.

In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the Justice Department "strongly disagrees with the decision of the divided court," calling the executive order "a constitutional exercise of the President's duty to protect our communities from terrorism." Sessions promised an appeal of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, making a legal showdown on the executive order in the nation's highest court a near-certainty.

"We are confident the President's executive order to protect the country is fully lawful and ultimately will be held by the Judiciary," a White House official told reporters.

Lieberman Withdraws from Search for FBI Chief Once seen as the frontrunner in the search to find a new FBI director, former Sen. Joe Lieberman withdrew from consideration on Thursday. Lieberman informed President Trump in a letter citing the latter's decision to retain Marc Kasowitz as his personal counsel in the Russia probe. Kasowitz Benson Torres, the Manhattan law firm where Kasowitz is a partner, employs Lieberman, a potential conflict of interest.

"Just being thought of for this position was a great honor because of my enormous respect for the men and women of the FBI and the critical and courageous work they do in protecting the American people from criminals and terrorists, and upholding our finest values," Lieberman said in his letter. Lieberman represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2013, serving as a Democrat until becoming an Independent in 2006. The Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, he would later endorse Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. Lieberman endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The White House has essentially restarted its search for a new FBI director as Lieberman joins a list of other candidates removing their names from consideration: Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), former Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, former FBI official Richard McFeely, and Judge Michael Garcia.

The White House has previously said that other candidates include former Gov. Frank Keating (R-OK) and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe; in addition, the Wall Street Journal has reported that former U.S. Attorney Ken Wainstein has been interviewed, while CNN has reported that former TSA Administrator John Pistole is being considered. Former Rep. Michael Rogers (R-MI) and former Bush White House official Fran Townsend have also been interviewed.

Rogers was endorsed by the FBI Agents Association, although Lieberman's withdrawal is another sign that a current or former officeholder is an unlikely choice in the current political environment.

The President's Schedule President Donald Trump is in Taormina, Sicily, Italy today, to attend the G7 summit in the last leg of his nine-day foreign trip. The G7 summit is an annual convening of the heads of state of the Group of 7, the world's top economies: Canda, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, plus the European Union. This is the 43rd annual G7 summit (although it was formerly the G8, before Russia was expelled after annexing Crimea in 2014), and the first for the UK's Theresa May, France's Emmanual Macron, Italy's Paolo Gentiloni, and Trump.

The first event of Trump's day is a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. After that, he will participate in a welcoming ceremony and reception for G7 leaders, and then a luncheon and working sessions with the other heads of state. President and Frist Lady Trump will also attend a La Scala Philharmonic Orchestra concert and attend a dinner hosted by Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

According to White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Trump will also hold a "pull-aside" meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May on the sidelines of the summit. The informal sit-down comes after the Trump-May relationship took a hit on Wednesday after U.S. leaks relating to the Manchester bombing caused U.K. officials to stop sharing intelligence on the investigation with America.

The President has not gained many allies in the final days of his maiden foreign trip, targeting the other heads of state in his address at the NATO summit on Thursday for not paying as much as the U.S. in NATO dues. Trump returns to Washington, D.C. on Saturday.

Today in Congress Both houses of Congress begin weeklong Memorial Day vacations today (a sentence that could only apply to the U.S. Congress). The House and Senate will each meet for brief pro forma sessions today, when one member gavels in the chamber and then gavels it out without any business conducted.