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Wake Up To Politics - November 8, 2018

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Thursday, November 8, 2018. 726 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

A lot of news to cover on this Thursday morning... plus it's my birthday! 🎉

Trump ousts Attorney General Jeff Sessions

President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday, installing in his place a loyalist who has been critical of the Russia investigation that he will now oversee.

"At your request, I am submitting my resignation," Sessions wrote in a letter delivered to the White House. President Trump promptly announced on Twitter that Sessions's chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, would succeed him as Acting Attorney General. Sessions's exit has been long expected, the result of the president's very public frustrations about his AG's recusal from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation; it finally took place one day after the midterm elections. According to the Washington Post, Sessions wanted to keep the job at least through the end of the week, but White House chief of staff John Kelly informed him Wednesday morning that it would be his last day.

Sessions's recusal has meant that the Mueller investigation was overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, his No. 2. That key responsibility is now transferred to Whitaker, a former U.S. Attorney in Iowa and top Trump ally. Before joining the Justice Department as Sessions's top aide in September 2017, he was very critical of the Mueller investigation, penning a CNN op-ed titled, "Mueller's investigation of Trump is going too far." In interviews on CNN, he has also defended Donald Trump Jr.'s controversial Trump Tower meeting, referred to Mueller investigating the Trump Organization as "crossing the red line," and suggested that President Trump should hobble the probe by quietly limiting its funding and scope, instead of taking the more-public step of firing Mueller outright.

Democrats immediately began calling for Whitaker to recuse himself from oversight of the Mueller probe, citing his past criticisms of the investigation as well as his ties to former Trump campaign aide Sam Clovis, who is a grand jury witness in the investigation. Whitaker chaired Clovis's 2014 campaign to be Iowa state treasurer.

"Given his previous comments advocating defunding and imposing limitations on the Mueller investigation, Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from its oversight for the duration of his time as Acting Attorney General," Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement.

The leaders of the incoming House Democratic majority have also signaled that Sessions's dismissal would be added to the substantial list of investigations they plan to launch after taking office. "The firing of Jeff Sessions will be investigated and people will be held accountable," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said. "This must begin immediately, and if not, then a Democratic Congress will make this a priority in January."

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, largely refrained from mentioning special counsel Mueller in their statements about the change, instead focusing on thanking Sessions (their former colleague) for his service. Sen.-elect Mitt Romney (R-UT), on the other hand, tweeted Wednesday that "it is imperative that...the Mueller investigation proceeds to its conclusion unimpeded."

Whitaker, so far, has given no indication that he will recuse himself from the Mueller probe or any other hint as to how he will oversee it. "I am committed to leading a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans," the acting AG said in a statement, without mentioning any specific cases or investigations.

--- The next AG: Some of the leading contenders being considered as Sessions's permanent replacement, per the Wall Street Journal: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, former Attorney General William Barr, Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani (the president's outside lawyer in the Russia probe). Whitaker is also being considered to stay on.

--- Next to go: Sessions is expected to be only the first Trump Cabinet member to go in a post-midterm shuffle. According to Politico, others on the chopping block include Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

--- Sessions's next move: Now that he has left the Justice Department, multiple news outlets have already reported that Sessions is "considering" running to win back his old Senate seat, which was won by Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) in a special election. Jones will face re-election to a full term in 2020.

White House suspends CNN correspondent's credentials after heated press conference

President Trump took the rare step of suspending CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta's White House press credentials on Wednesday, just hours after Acosta sparred with the president at a heated press conference.

At Trump's post-midterm press conference, Acosta, who has had a contentious relationship with the Trump White House since its inauguration, challenged the president on his characterization of the Central American migrant caravan as an "invasion." Trump dismissed the question, saying: "Honestly, I think you should let me run the country. You run CNN."

The president then attempted to move on to another reporter, but Acosta held on to the microphone as a White House intern attempted to grab it from him, hoping to ask a follow-up. During the episode, Trump called Acosta a "rude, terrible person" and said he "shouldn't be working for CNN." Later that night, Acosta's "hard pass," which gives journalists access to the White House, was revoked by the Secret Service.

In a statement announcing the decision, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders accused Acosta of "placing his hands" on the intern as she attempted to take his microphone. "This conduct is absolutely unacceptable," Sanders said, adding: "The fact that CNN is proud of the way their employee behaved is not only disgusting, it's an example of their outrageous disregard for everyone, including young women, who work in this Administration." Sanders continued, announcing that Acosta's hard pass would be suspended "until further notice."

"This is a lie," Acosta responded on Twitter to Sanders's claim that he had inappropriately touched the female intern during the press conference. (Decide for yourself: here's video of the incident).

Acosta was not the only reporter who provoked Trump's ire at the press conference. After NBC's Peter Alexander tried to defend Acosta, the president snapped: "Well, I'm not a big fan of yours, either." He also accused PBS NewsHour's Yamiche Alexander of asking "a racist question" after she pressed him about identifying as a "nationalist."

While tangling with Acosta, Trump also defended his anti-media rhetoric. "When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people," he declared.

Election Central

Latest results: What we've learned over the past 24 hours...

  • The Florida Senate race is headed to a recount. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is currently trailing his challenger, Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), by 0.4%, or about 30,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast. Florida state law automatically triggers a recount when the margin of victory in a race is within 0.5%.
  • Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) won re-election, defeating Republican state auditor Matt Rosendale, 50.1% to 47.1%. Tester was one of two vulnerable Senate Democrats to secure another term, along with West Virginia's Joe Manchin.
  • Two key races that remain in limbo: the Arizona Senate race (Republican Martha McSally leads Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, 49.4% to 48.4%) and the Georgia gubernatorial race (Republican Brian Kemp leads Democrat Stacey Abrams, 50.3% to 48.7%). In Arizona, no winner will be declared at least until the early votes are finished being counted later tonight; in Georgia, Kemp has declared victory, while Abrams has refused to concede until provisional ballots are done being counted.

Leadership elections: Now that the results of Tuesday's elections are (mostly) decided, both parties must choose their leaders for the next Congress.

  • House Democrats: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who has led the House Democratic Caucus since 2003 (including a four-year stint as Speaker), announced on Wednesday that she intends to run for Speaker once again. Although some upstart Democrats have announced they won't support Pelosi, no challenger has emerged (yet). Pelosi's No. 2, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), also announced plans to run for House Majority Leader in the next Congress, while Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), who is next in line, announced that he will seek to become House Majority Whip again. Clyburn, at least, will face opposition: Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), who is currently a Chief Deputy Whip, said Wednesday that she would challenge Clyburn for the No. 3 spot.
  • House Republicans: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-MI) is retiring, leaving the top spot open in the new Republican minority. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), currently the House Majority Leader, said Wednesday that he will run for Minority Leader. However, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a leader of his party's conservative wing, also threw his hat in the ring on Wednesday, which could pose trouble for McCarthy. The current No. 3, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), is also waiting in the wings if McCarthy stumbles.

Both parties will be selecting their leaders in the weeks to come.

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White House schedule

POTUS: President Trump attends the formal investiture of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh today. At 9:45am, Trump participates in a meet-and-greet with Kavanaugh and the other eight justices. At 10am, he will attend the investiture at the Supreme Court chambers.

After returning to the White House, the president will meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at 11am. Pompeo was scheduled to meet with a top lieutenant of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un today, but the meeting was suddenly postponed without explanation.  

VP: Vice President Pence has no public events scheduled.

Congress schedule

Both chambers of Congress are on recess.

*All times Eastern