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Wake Up To Politics - October 31, 2017

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Tuesday, October 31, 2017 (Happy Halloween!). One week until Election Day 2017. 371 days until Election Day 2018. 1,099 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 Former Trump Campaign Aides Indicted in Russia Probe, Another Pleads Guilty

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation reached a new phase on Monday, as his office unsealed cases against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime protégé Rick Gates, who were both indicted for money laundering, and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts. These actions are the first criminal charges to emerge from probes into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Manafort, Gates indicted: According to documents unsealed on Monday, Manafort and Gates were indicted by a federal grand jury led by Mueller on Friday, charged with 12 counts: "conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts." The 31-page indictment details the Justice Department's accusations against the two men, claiming that in the midst of their work as political consultants and lobbyists, they "acted as unregistered agents" for the Ukranian government and Russia-backed political parties in Ukraine."

They were charged with laundering the money they earned and funneling some of the payments into foreign accounts which they hid, using the money to "enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income." They also stand accused of failing to report their work in Ukraine and then lying to the Justice Department about it. In total, the indictment says, more than $75 million flowed through the offshore accounts: Manafort laundered more than $18 million, Gates transferred more than $3 million to other accounts he controlled.

Although the indictment does not mention the Trump campaign, Manafort and Gates both played key roles in the President's election. Manafort, a veteran lobbyist known for his work on the Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan presidential campaigns, joined the Trump campaign as convention manager in in March 2016. From May to August 2016, he led the campaign as chairman and chief strategist. Gates is Manafort's longtime junior business associate, who served as his deputy on the campaign, managing the day-to-day activities under Manafort and staying on as liaison to the Republican National Committee even after his boss' exit.

They both remained in Trump's orbit through the Inauguration: Manafort and Trump have spoken by phone since the latter took office, while Gates helped found the pro-Trump nonprofit American First Policies and has been seen taking meetings at the White House.

Manafort and Gates both surrendered to the FBI on Monday, briefly appearing at a federal court. They were both ordered to surrender their passports and put on home confinement, with bond set at $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates. The former faces 12 to 15 years in prison, while the latter faces 10 to 12 years. Both pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Papadopoulos pleads guilty: Meanwhile, the Special Counsel on Monday also revealed its 14-page case against George Papadopoulos, who served as a foreign policy adviser on the Trump campaign, announcing that Papadopoulos was arrested at Washington Dulles Airport on July 27 and pleaded guilty "to making false statements to FBI agents" on October 5. He has been cooperating with the federal prosecutors, they said. While Manafort and Gates were more high-profile figures in last year's election, the charges against Papadopoulos are more intertwined with the campaign they all served and show Mueller's focus on allegations of collusion.

Papadopoulos admitted to making a number of "material false statements and material omissions" during a January interview with the FBI, failing to disclose the extent and timeline of his communications with a Russian professor and a Russian national, who both had connections to government officials in Moscow. In the document unsealed on Monday, the prosecutors detail Papadopoulos' communications with both individuals and his work to set up a meeting between officials from Russia and the Trump campaign.

Significantly, the document also revealed that Papadopolous was told in April 2016 that the Russians possessed "dirt" on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails." Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's email account was hacked by Russian actors in March 2016; it would not be made public until June 2016. This is the first sign that the Trump campaign had advance knowledge of the hacking, and the second reported instance of Trump campaign officials meeting with Russian officials after being offered information on Clinton, the first being the Trump Tower meeting in June between Donald Trump, Jr., Manafort, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and a Russian lawyer.

The White House responds: In a series of statements on Monday, the White House sought to distance itself from the Russia probe developments. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at her daily briefing that the indictments have "nothing to do with the President...[or] the President's campaign," while minimizing Manafort's role as "oversee[ing] the delegate process, not much else." Sanders also attempted to divert attention to recent allegations aimed at Trump's 2016 opponent, saying "the real collusion has everything to do with the Clinton campaign."

Sanders' response was very similar to President Trump's Monday tweets on the indictment. "Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????" Trump tweeted, later adding: "Also, there is NO COLLUSION!" Trump's tweets saying the indictments were about issues before the 2016 campaign is not completely accurate, as Mueller's team accused Manafort and Gates of laundering money through "at least 2016" and of misleading the Justice Department in 2016.

In addition, Trump's tweet was undermined by the unsealing of the Papadopolous case, which is directly related to events that occurred during the 2016 campaign. Sanders attempted to downplay Papadopolous' part on the Trump campaign at her briefing, saying he merely served on a "volunteer advisory committee." President Trump later mentioned Papadopolous in a pair of tweets sent this morning: "The Fake News is working overtime. As Paul Manaforts lawyer said, there was 'no collusion' and events mentioned took place long before he...came to the campaign," he said. "Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar. Check the DEMS!"

While Sanders and members of Trump's legal team sent a message of confidence on Monday, reports from inside the White House painted a different picture. The Washington Post described Trump spending hours watching television, initially feeling vindicated by the charges unrelated to his campaign, but turning angry after the Papadopolous revelation. According to the Associated Press, Trump "has become increasingly concerned" by the Mueller probe, fearful that it could expand into his personal financial dealings. Both of those outlets said the President "fumed" after Monday's news; he was "seething," according to CNN. That report, and another from Politico, also described Papadopoulos' plea deal as catching Trump and White House aides off guard.

As Trump attempted to distance himself from the developments, outside allies continued Monday to call for Mueller's resignation or firing. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an early Trump supported, told Fox News' Sean Hannity, another Trump adviser who has been critical of the Special Counsel, that Mueller is "an out of control prosecutor" who is "grotesquely abusing his power." Multiple outlets reported that at least one of these voices is reaching Trump directly: former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly spoke to Trump over the phone on Monday to urge "more aggressive" action against Mueller.

Sanders said on Monday that Trump had no plans to fire Mueller, adding that she expected the investigation to "conclude soon." However, unless Trump decides to order Mueller's removal, Monday's actions are seen as just the beginning of what will likely be a months-long probe by the Special Counsel. The charges against the three Trump campaign officials send shockwaves across Washington, and also served as a powerful message to scare Mueller's other potential targets, who now watch as Manafort and Gates face years in jail after pleading not guilty while Papadopolous' cooperation has earned him a plea deal.

Transgender ban struck down

A federal judge on Monday blocked parts of President Donald Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a preliminary injunction preventing the Trump Administration from enforcing the ban, which she said "does not appear to be supported by and facts" and would impose "inherent inequality" in the Armed Forces.

Like judges who struck down the President's travel ban, Kollar-Kotelly used Trump's tweets against him in her ruling, criticizing his announcement on the social media site as coming "without any of the formality or deliberative processes that generally accompany the development and announcement of major policy changes that will gravely affect the lives of many Americans."

The judge ordered the Pentagon to "revert to the status quo," prioritizing the Obama Administration's decision to allow transgender troops to continue serving over President Trump's August memo authorizing their discharge.

The Trump Administration had asked for the lawsuit from the GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to be dismissed, arguing that "federal courts owe the utmost deference to the political branches in the field of national defense and military affairs" and pointing out that the memorandum is still under Pentagon review. A Justice Department spokeswoman responded to the injunction, saying that "we disagree with the court's ruling and are currently evaluating the next steps."

Menendez trial

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his co-defendant, eye doctor Salomon Melgen, rested their defense on Monday, as their bribery trial nears a close. Menendez and Melgen were charged by the Justice Department in 2014 with 14 counts of corruption. The New Jersey senator was accused of accepting perks from Melgen in exchange for using his office to advance his longtime friend and donor's business interests.

U.S. District Judge William H. Walls, who is presiding over the trial, rejected the defense attorneys' motion for a mistrial on Monday, calling the request "silly" and without "palpable merit." According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, " closing arguments in the trial, now in its ninth week, could begin as soon as Wednesday"; the case would then go to the jury later in the week.

"Eight weeks, 50 witnesses, and hundreds of documents. I and my lawyers believe this jury will be ready to render a just verdict, and I am confident it will be not guilty,” Menendez told reporters outside the courthouse Monday.

Daily Data: Trump approval ratings

As "the cloud" of the Special Counsel's probe into his campaign team and election victory continues to hang over his Administration, President Donald Trump's approval ratings continue to suffer. On Monday, Gallup's daily tracking poll found the President's approval rating at its lowest point since taking office (33%), and his disapproval rating at its highest (62%). The poll was conducted over a three-day period, meaning some interviews would have been after initial reports of the Russia probe indictment.

That dip comes after Trump also reached an all-time low in NBC News/Wall Sreet Journal's monthly poll of his approval rating. In its latest iteration, released on Sunday, 38% of Americans said they approved of Trump's job performance (a 5-point drop from September), while 58% disapproved. According to NBC, Trump's October job approval rating poll is the "lowest in modern times for a president at this stage of his presidency": in the fall of their first year as President, the same poll found George W. Bush at 88%, Barack Obama at 51%, and Bill Clinton at 47%.

The President's Day: Ryan meeting

President Donald Trump will focus on his legislative agenda today, participating in a "tax reform industry meeting," followed by a "legislative foreign policy lunch," and then a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). All of the meetings will be closed press: none will include "pool sprays" (opportunities for White House reporters to photograph and question the President).

Today in Congress: Judicial confirmations

The Senate: The upper chamber will continue consideration of the nomination of Amy Barrett to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit. Barrett, a former Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and onetime clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is currently a professor at Notre Dame Law School. Her nomination was advanced by the Senate in a 54-42 vote on Monday, with Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Tim Kaine (VA), and Joe Manchin (WV) voting "yea." A final confirmation vote is expected tonight.

Barrett is one of four circuit judge nominees set to be voted on by the Senate this week, a new stage in efforts by President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and conservative activists to speed through the President's judicial picks and enact a large-scale remaking of the federal bench.

"We'll confirm all of them this week no matter how long that takes," McConnell said on Monday, even threatening to keep the Senate in session over the weekend if necessary. His Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), protested, saying "it is the first time in my memory the Senate is being asked to process four circuit court judges in a single week."

Barrett's nomination has received particular attention after Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) at her confirmation hearing appeared to question Barrett's independence due to her Catholic faith. "The dogma lives loudly within you, and that's a concern," Feinstein said, sparking criticism from conservatives. McConnell, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), other Senate Republicans, and leaders of various religious liberty groups held a press conference on Monday to rebuke the line of questioning, accusing Democrats of applying a "religious test" in judicial confirmation.

Russia hearing: Also today... the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), will hold a hearing on Russian use of social media to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, with testimony from representatives of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. According to NBC News, both Facebook and Twitter will testify that Russian-backed content was more widely seen than previously disclosed. Facebook will inform the panel that 80,000 posts by 120 fake Russian-backed pages reached an estimated 126 million Americans, while Twitter will announce that 1.4 million tweets from nearly 37,000 Russian-linked bots were seen 288 million times during the final months of the 2016 election.

The House: The lower chamber is scheduled to vote on four pieces of legislation today:

  • the National Forest System Vegetation Management Pilot Program Act, "to establish a vegetation management pilot program on National Forest System land to better protect utility infrastructure from passing wildfire";
  • the Kisatchie National Forest Land Conveyance Act, "to provide for the conveyance of certain National Forest System land within Kisatchie National Forest in the State of Louisiana";
  • a bill "to authorize the purchase of a small parcel of Natural Resources Conservation Service property in Riverside, California, by the Riverside Corona Resource Conservation District";
  • and the South Carolina Peanut Parity Act, "to amend the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 to include South Carolina as a part of the Virginia/Carolina peanut producing region for purposes of appointment to the Peanut Standards Board."