“As the 2018 election year begins, one question above all is likely to shape its outcome: Will Americans vote to constrain President Donald Trump by electing a Democrat-led Congress that will challenge and resist him, or to empower the Republicans who are increasingly working in harness with him? … The ominous precedent for Republicans is that Trump’s standing with the public now is weaker than each of” his three most recent “predecessors’ was when their party lost unified control during midterm elections” of 1994, 2006, and 2010. (CNN)
“After ending their first year on a high, signing a sweeping tax reform bill into law,” President Trump’s advisers “are divided about how to capitalize on that victory and maintain momentum going forward with Hill Republicans again at odds over their legislative agenda.
“They’re facing a brain drain on a White House that already had trouble recruiting top talent. Many senior West Wing aides are expected to depart in the coming year, with no replacements lined up. White House chief of staff John Kelly–who has already fired several presidential aides–wants to push out more, but has struggled to find suitable alternatives.
“And they’re still working under the shadow of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, despite repeated assurances from the White House legal team that the inquiry is wrapping up.” (Politico)
RUSSIA. In a wide-ranging interview, Trump said over the holiday break that he believes Mueller will be fair in conducting the Russian investigation, a shift from the previous tone he has often taken when addressing the scandal. “There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair,” he said of Mueller. (New York Times)
Meanwhile, “a growing campaign by President Trump’s most ardent supporters to discredit the special counsel … and the law enforcement agencies assisting his investigation is opening new fissures in the Republican Party, with some lawmakers questioning the damage being done to federal law enforcement and to a political party that has long championed law and order.
“A small but vocal group of conservative lawmakers, much of the conservative media and, at times, the president himself have launched a series of attacks to paint not only Mr. Mueller but institutions once considered sacrosanct to Republicans like the F.B.I. and Justice Department as dangerously biased against Mr. Trump. One of them, Representative Francis Rooney of Florida, called on Tuesday for top F.B.I. and Justice Department officials to be ‘purged.’
“Now some Republican lawmakers are speaking out, worried that Trump loyalists, hoping for short-term gain, could wind up staining the party, dampening morale at the F.B.I. and Justice Department, and potentially recasting Democrats as the true friends of law enforcement for years to come.” (New York Times)
2020. “Many Democrats and some Republicans predict there’s a chance Trump may not be on the ballot in 2020 for any number of reasons: He resigns; gets removed from office; chooses not to seek re-election; or loses in a GOP primary. Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, placed Trump’s odds of completing his first term at 30 percent.
“But Trump, who filed the paperwork for re-election the day he took office, is already testing out campaign themes on the trail. Speaking at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, last month, Trump said the next election will boil down to the performance of the stock market.”
“There’s been a lot of chatter in political circles about Trump facing a primary challenger—perhaps Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska or retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a vocal critic of the president. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who campaigned for Clinton in 2016, has said that if he runs for president, he will probably do so as a Republican.” (NBC News)
RNC. “Fresh from interviewing former White House press secretary Sean Spicer over what he was doing on the fifth floor of Trump Tower on election night, Democrats now want to interview former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
“Spicer’s presence that night has caused some unease among Republicans because the expiration of a 35-year-old settlement, or consent decree, barring the RNC from engaging in ballot security operations may depend on it. The fifth floor … was the nerve center of then-candidate Donald Trump’s poll-watching operations. … The Democratic request to interview Priebus may be the last gasp in the party’s quest to keep the consent decree alive.” (Politico)
IOWA. “Iowa has seemingly soured on the president and his party.” The end-of-year Iowa Poll (Dec. 3-6; 802 Iowa adults; 3.5%), “an industry standard conducted by Des Moines-based Selzer and Co., found Trump with just 35% approval in the state. Only 34% of Iowans said they would back Republicans for Congress in 2018, and 61% said they were turned off by politics altogether.
“The discrepancy between the rosy economic picture and the public’s distaste for Trump in Iowa has confounded both parties and complicated one of the major political stories of the decade—the Republican romp through the Midwest.
“Why Iowa has turned against Trump and Republicans is a mystery that both parties are eager to figure out ahead of the 2018 midterms, looking to understand whether it’s an aberration or a sign of a greater political trend.” (Washington Post)
IDAHO. The agenda during the Idaho GOP’s winter meeting “includes a proposal asking Republican candidates to disclose their support of the Idaho party platform. If approved, the chairman would be required to announce which candidates either failed to support the whole oath or took exceptions to parts of it.
“The party dumped the so-called loyalty oath last year after first adopting it in 2011. Opponents argued the oath was used to narrow the party’s base, rather than promote healthy debate, by pinpointing candidates as ‘unfaithful’ to the GOP.” (AP)
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"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."
"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."
"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.
"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."