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Essential Politics: To Russia, with (no signs of) love

For a presidency that was supposed to be “America First,” the young administration of President Trump has been shaped in so many ways by a different slogan: “What about Russia?”

Now, a high-stakes shift in that narrative has emerged after mounting tensions over a deadly attack in Syria.

Good morning from the state capital. I’m Sacramento Bureau Chief John Myers, and we begin our midweek look at Essential Politics with the visit by Trump’s top diplomat to Russia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow on Tuesday, the same day the president’s team accused Russia of a “cover-up” when it came to the Syrian government’s role in last week’s deadly poison gas attack that killed dozens of Syrian civilians.

Tillerson is scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, today. The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin would not receive Tillerson, as is customary when U.S. secretaries of State visit Moscow.

Meantime, the Trump administration continues to talk tough about its foreign and military policy after the Syrian attack. Defense Secretary James Mattis warned on Tuesday that any future use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad could draw fresh U.S. retaliation.

"If they use chemical weapons, they are going to pay a very, very stiff price," he told reporters at the Pentagon.

And yes, the White House will no doubt get some extra scrutiny today after Tuesday’s gaffe by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who didn’t exactly paint a clear picture of world history in remarks that suggested Assad was more vicious than Adolf Hitler.

AND DON’T FORGET NORTH KOREA

The president, meanwhile, took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to rattle the saber a bit about North Korea.

Proclaiming that the communist country is “looking for trouble," Trump issued another series of 140-character doctrine statements, making clear that help from China is not all he’s thinking about when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear missile program.

"If China decides to help, that would be great," Trump tweeted on Tuesday. "If not, we will solve the problem without them!"

In a phone call Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Trump to avoid military confrontation with North Korea. Xi also expressed a willingness to coordinate with the U.S.

ON IMMIGRATION: TOUGH TALK, LESS SCORN

A bit of bravado could also be found on Tuesday in Arizona, as U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions put a fine point on the new approach to illegal immigration.

"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era," Sessions said in a speech at the Nogales Point of Entry in Arizona.

But Sessions’ tour came at the same time as the nation’s immigration enforcement agency was hitting the pause button on its effort to publicly criticize so-called “sanctuary cities."

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on Tuesday stopped issuing its weekly “decline detainer" reports. A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that in some cases, ICE mixed up names -- confusing Franklin counties in Iowa, New York and Pennsylvania. In other cases, the detainees had already been picked up by ICE or had never been released in the first place.

“There have been some data processing errors, and some other issues," said David Lapan, chief spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. “We want to make sure we look at this holistically and make sure we are getting this as accurate as possible."

SUSPENSE IN THE SUNFLOWER STATE

For a political universe looking for clues -- any clues, no matter how small -- of the world after the Trump tsunami, Tuesday night was a big deal in Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District.

In the end, though, the status quo prevailed.

State Treasurer Ron Estes won the special election to fill the seat vacated by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Estes, a Republican running in what has been a reliably GOP district, beat Democrat James Thompson.

The Kansas congressional race was closely watched by both parties curious whether there would be any sign of anti-Trump protests in the votes cast at the ballot box.

Cathleen Decker writes that while Republicans survived an embarrassing scare in an area that’s long been a party stronghold, it’s only the first of the 2017 special elections prompted by GOP lawmakers who took spots in the Trump Cabinet.

WELCOME, JUSTICE GORSUCH

The oath of office was administered on Monday to Justice Neil Gorsuch, the end of a saga that left a lasting mark on the United States Senate.

Gorsuch was sworn into office twice -- first by Chief Justice John Roberts and then in a public event by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Rose Garden at the White House.

The new justice will join the court in time for a closely watched dispute over religious rights. Meanwhile, it was Trump’s pronouncement on Monday that stole the show.

“I got it done in the first 100 days!" he said to the crowd.

CALIFORNIA: THIRD IN THE NATION?

California Democrats are ready to shake up the state’s role in the picking of a president, it seems. In fact, they’re even willing to give the governor the power to call a presidential primary audible.

A bill by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) would move the state’s primary in presidential years to the third Tuesday in March. Unlike prior efforts, it would also move up congressional and legislative primaries starting with the 2020 electoral cycle.

But the bill, also endorsed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, takes it one step further than other efforts: It would allow the governor to move the primary even earlier than late March, depending on what happens with other states that try to jockey themselves into position after the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The bill gets its first committee hearing in Sacramento next week.

LAWMAKERS’ STADIUM BIDS COME UP SHORT

For the last eight years, state legislators have tried to make it easier for numerous professional football and basketball stadiums to be built in California. Despite high-profile bills often subject to intense debate, lawmakers don’t have much to show for their efforts, Liam Dillon reports.

Dillon also put together a timeline of all the stadium bills over the years, including the one clear success: a 2013 measure for the construction of a new Sacramento Kings arena.

TODAY’S ESSENTIALS

-- The end of the political road came on Monday for (now former) Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned after pleading guilty to campaign violations after an attempted cover-up and his interest in an affair with a former aide.

-- An anti-marijuana group faces campaign finance violations from its work opposing Proposition 64, last fall’s marijuana legalization initiative.

-- The attorney for California legislative leaders sent a letter Monday to the nation’s attorney general saying that they will use “all available means" to defend the state’s priorities against any crackdown on illegal immigration.

-- Democrats are sending national staffers into California in an effort to flip House seats now held by Republicans.

-- More than 90% of late-arriving ballots counted in L.A.’s congressional primary went to Robert Lee Ahn, putting him just three percentage points behind Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez in near-final results. Turnout stands at just over 14%, and the two are headed to a June 6 runoff. Results are expected to be certified Thursday. Meanwhile, Gomez announced the support of six of his primary opponents Tuesday.

-- A former Navy SEAL is the latest Democrat to announce a run next year against Alpine Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter.

LOGISTICS

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