First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Buckle up:Trump faces his most consequential week yet
This is shaping up to be a consequential week for Donald Trump’s presidency — on his explosive wiretapping charge, on Russia, on the fate of his health-care effort, and on the confirmation of his Supreme Court pick. And we start getting answers to these questions as soon as today.
1. Does FBI Director Comey publicly repudiate Trump’s wiretapping charge? Beginning at 10:00 am ET, Comey testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Russia’s activities to influence the 2016 election. But expect Democrats to ask him to either confirm — or refute — President Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that Barack Obama wire-tapped him. Earlier this month, NBC News reported that Comey asked the Justice Department to publicly reject Trump’s claim.
2. How far does Comey go on Russia? As for the main topic the House Intelligence Committee is pursuing — on Russia — Comey could shed light on whether there is anything to back up the assertion that House Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA) made on “Meet the Press” yesterday. “There is circumstantial evidence of collusion. There is direct evidence, I think, of deception and that's where we begin the investigation," Schiff said, referring to Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. "[W]e need to know whether the circumstantial evidence of collusion and direct evidence of deception is indicative of more." This morning, Trump tweeted, “James Clapper and others stated that there is no evidence Potus colluded with Russia. This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!"
3. Does the health-care effort survive — or die? We’ll find out the answer on Thursday, when the House is scheduled to vote on the GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan can afford 21 Republican defections, and right now NBC News has identified at least 17 House members who are opposed or who are leaning that way. And in the Senate, where Trump can afford just two defections, there are five GOP senators who are opposed or leaning that way. If the legislation passes the House, repeal/replace survives. If it doesn’t, it dies — most likely for good. This evening, Trump speaks in Louisville, KY, presumably to discuss health care.
4. Is Gorsuch’s confirmation still on track? Finally, with Neil Gorsuch’s Senate confirmation beginning at 11:00 am ET, we’ll find out if he’s still on track to be the next member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump’s job-approval rating sinks to 37% in Gallup poll
This big week for Trump comes as the Gallup poll finds his approval rating at just 37% — the lowest level of his presidency so far — with 58% disapproving. Is this just noise in the Gallup poll? Or does it suggest that the focus on health care and his wiretapping charge has taken an additional toll on his presidency? (A Fox News poll last week had Trump’s approval at 43%, down from 48% in February). By the way, to put Trump’s 37% in the Gallup poll into perspective, here is the Gallup rating for other recent presidents two months into their tenure:
- Barack Obama: 63%
- George W. Bush: 58%
- Bill Clinton: 53%
What Comey says — and doesn’t say — about Russia could very telling
Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes writes that what Comey says — or doesn’t say — about the Russia investigation could offer a real clue on just how much evidence the FBI has on any potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “We know, both from the [John Aschroft] hospital room testimony and from the Clinton email testimony, how Comey behaves when he feels at liberty to speak. We also know he's angry right now and would presumably love a chance to defend the integrity of his agency and his agents. If he passes up that opportunity, I will read that as a sign that he is biting his lip very hard because there's something more important at stake.” In other words, Comey has been free to speak his mind — see Hillary Clinton’s emails from back in July — but if he doesn’t here, then that means he doesn’t want to jeopardize the FBI’s investigation.
Comey’s consequential last year
As our colleague Beth Fouhy reminds us, FBI Director James Comey has had quite the consequential year -- first exonerating (but also criticizing) Hillary Clinton on her emails, then intervening in the final two weeks of the 2016 election, and now with his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee (on Russia and Trump’s wiretapping charge).
Kentucky and the politics of health care
So President Trump is headed to Kentucky today – after Vice President Pence was in the Bluegrass State earlier this month. While one story here is the courtship of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who is opposed to the House GOP health-care plan, another story is that the White House is targeting what is arguably the country’s biggest Obamacare success story — Kentucky.
In 2013, more than 20% of Kentucky residents didn’t have health insurance. Two years later, that percentage declined to 7.5%, according to Gallup. The key beneficiaries were older, poorer, and more rural residents — some of the key demographics that helped elect Trump, as well as GOP Gov. Matt Bevin, who succeeded Democrat Steve Beshear (who delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s speech to Congress). And it just so happens that it’s older, poorer, and more rural residents who would be some of the biggest losers under the GOP House bill.
Gorsuch’s big day
Per a source close to Neil Gorsuch, he's been prepping for the past several weeks in a number of 8-10 hour sessions at the Old Executive Office building, NBC's Hallie Jackson reports. White House counsel and former clerks have been involved with the questioning. NBC’s Kristen Welker adds that Gorsuch will likely work on his opening statement until the moment he delivers it, according to another source familiar with the proceedings. Expect him to stress the independence of the judiciary and the importance of following precedent. He believes a justice doesn't always have to love the outcome of his or her own opinions, but "has to be true to the law."
President Trump meets with Bill Gates at 11:00 am ET… He chats health care with House Speaker Paul Ryan, HHS Secretary Tom Price, and Zeke Emanuel (!!!) at 11:30 am ET… He meets with Iraq’s president at 3:00 pm ET… And he speaks at a “Make America Great Again” rally in Louisville, KY at 7:40 pm ET.
What were other presidents doing on March 20?
Just how blue is Virginia? We’ll find out in November
Finally, one of us takes a deep dive into the Virginia gubernatorial contest’s Democratic primary. “The liberal showdown in Virginia's gubernatorial race played out earlier this month in Northern Virginia, where Democrat Ralph Northam met with workers at Ronald Reagan National Airport who were campaigning for a $15-per-hour minimum wage... The very next day, his primary opponent Tom Perriello made the same visit - and his campaign told NBC that he had embraced raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour before Northam did. Say hello to the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia, which increasingly has become a contest to see which candidate is more progressive. And say goodbye to the more centrist Virginia Democratic playbook that current Sen. Mark Warner — and Tim Kaine and Jim Webb, to lesser degrees — used successfully in the state over the last 16 years...
And it all raises the question: Just how blue is the state that Democrats have won in three-straight presidential elections? Or is it still purple, given the Republicans' control of the state legislature and their gubernatorial victory there eight years ago?”