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.
Eleven Days That Shook The Political World
It’s been 44 years since the last time a president fired his top officials at the Justice Department (though we get how President Trump’s firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates Monday night is different than the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre). It’s rare when an ally head of state cancels a meeting with the U.S. president, like what happened last Friday with Mexico’s president (Obama vs. Netanyahu is maybe the closest parallel). It’s not every day when there’s a botched U.S. military raid in a far-away country ("Almost everything went wrong," an official told NBC News about Sunday’s raid in Yemen, which resulted in the deaths of a SEAL and the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki). It never happened in last eight years when the past president criticized the new one (as Barack Obama’s statement on Trump’s immigration/travel ban did yesterday). And it only happens once or twice in a president’s term when there’s a Supreme Court appointment (which happens tonight at 8:00 pm ET). Indeed, if the first sixdays of the Trump administration were marked by fights -- over crowd size, discredited charges of voter fraud, and “alternative” facts -- then the last five days have been seismic events that have shaken the political world. The only things that have been missing these last 11 days, it seems, have been a declaration of war, a political trial, and a beer summit. Going back to the campaign, almost everything about Trump has been rare or unprecedented. And we’re getting that a week and a half into his presidency. To recap the last 11 days:
- Friday, Jan. 20: Trump takes the oath as the nation's 45th president.
- Wednesday, Jan. 25: Trump signs border-wall and sanctuary-city executive actions.
- Thursday, Jan. 26: Mexico's president cancels visit to meet with Trump.
- Friday, Jan. 27: Trump signs his immigration/travel ban.
- Sunday, Jan. 29: Trump-ordered military raid in Yemen results in the death of three al Qaeda leaders, as well as one SEAL Team 6 member and the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki.
- Monday, Jan. 30: Obama statement criticizes Trump’s immigration/travel ban; Trump fires the acting U.S. attorney general who directed Justice lawyers not to defend Trump’s travel ban.
How not to win friends and influence enemies
There’s one more thing that’s so rare or unprecedented about Trump -- the degree to which he criticizes the political opposition or even members of his own party. Some of the latest examples via Twitter:
- “Nancy Pelosi and Fake Tears Chuck Schumer held a rally at the steps of The Supreme Court and mic did not work (a mess)-just like Dem party!”
- “The joint statement of former presidential candidates John McCain & Lindsey Graham is wrong - they are sadly weak on immigration. The two...Senators should focus their energies on ISIS, illegal immigration and border security instead of always looking to start World War III.”
- "Somebody with aptitude and conviction should buy the FAKE NEWS and failing @nytimes and either run it correctly or let it fold with dignity!”
If you cover politics like we do, you’ve become numb to these kinds of statements from Trump. But remember, these are the people (Republicans, Democrats, even the media) that a presidential administration needs to work with.
Monday night’s firing elevates Sessions’ confirmation vote
Trump’s firing of Yates, naturally, has become a polarizing moment in American politics. The White House said Yates “betrayed” the Justice Department, while Democrats have celebrated her move. But more than anything else, last night’s event elevates today’s Senate confirmation vote for the man whom Trump picked to lead his Justice Department -- Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). And so in that context, this March 2015 exchange between Sessions and Yates (at Yates’ confirmation hearing) is all the more striking:
SESSIONS: Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to president if he asks for something that is improper? A lot of people have defended the [Loretta] Lynch nomination by saying he appoints somebody who's going to execute his views. What's wrong with that? But if the views of the president are unlawful, should the attorney general or deputy attorney general say no?
YATES: Senator, I believe the attorney general or deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and give their independent legal advice to the president.
The question Democrats are asking today: Can someone like Sessions who played such a big role in Trump’s campaign -- and whose top staff now work for Trump -- show that same kind of independence at the Justice Department?
Strengths and weaknesses for Trump’s two Supreme Court finalists
And now we finally get to tonight’s big event: Trump’s 8:00 pm ET announcement of his Supreme Court pick. NBC’s Pete Williams reports that the choice likely comes down to two men -- Neil Gorsuch of the 10th Circuit and Thomas Hardiman of the 3rd Circuit. Interestingly, this confirmation might be one of the easier political lifts for the Trump White House, given that neither Gorsuch nor Hardiman is a lightning rod on paper. Here are the strengths and weaknesses for each man:
- Given his reputation as an “ardent textualist,”per Scotusblog, he’s seen as a natural successor to Antonin Scalia.
- Is conservative but without many opinions and views likely to draw immediate fire from Democrats – like William Pryor (another potential nominee) would trigger. See his easy Senate confirmation in 2006 by voice vote.
- Likely to energize social conservatives with his past opinions defending religious liberty (especially concerning Obamacare).
- While social conservatives will hail his views on religious liberty, those in favor of assisted suicide and euthanasia won’t like the 2009 book he wrote – “The Future of Assisted Suicide And Euthanasia” – which argues against legalization.
- Gorsuch’s mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Reagan – and the first woman to head agency. But she was forced to resign in 1983 after being cited for contempt of Congress “for refusing to turn over Superfund records, arguing that they were protected by executive privilege,” according to the Washington Post’s obituary of her. She died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 62.
- Democrats will likely seize on Gorsuch’s previous opposition to the so-called “Chevron” doctrine – through which courts have given the executive branch wide deference in determining vague laws and rulings.
- Has a great story to tell: First member of his family to go to college, and even drove a taxi the summer before he went to law school.
- Is conservative but without many opinions and views likely to draw immediate fire from Democrats – like William Pryor would trigger. See Hardiman’s 95-0 confirmation vote in 2007.
- Serves on the same appellate court as Trump’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, so the Trump family knows him better than other candidates.
- His wife, Lori Zappala, hails from a prominent Democratic family in Pittsburgh.
- Might not fire up conservatives and Republicans the same way Pryor would.
“The Republican Fausts”
On any normal day, this might be our top story -- a prominent conservative writer/thinker (David Brooks) suggesting that his party will regret Trump. “Many Republican members of Congress have made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. They don’t particularly admire him as a man, they don’t trust him as an administrator, they don’t agree with him on major issues, but they respect the grip he has on their voters, they hope he’ll sign their legislation and they certainly don’t want to be seen siding with the inflamed progressives or the hyperventilating media. Their position was at least comprehensible: How many times in a lifetime does your party control all levers of power? When that happens you’re willing to tolerate a little Trumpian circus behavior in order to get things done. But if the last 10 days have made anything clear, it’s this: The Republican Fausts are in an untenable position. The deal they’ve struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul.”
Team Clinton vs. Obama
Here’s another story that would ordinarily get more attention, too: “The worst-kept secret inside Democratic circles is how bitter Hillary Clinton's team is at President Obama over her election loss. We have heard from numerous, anguished people in Clinton-land blaming Obama -- more than Putin, FBI Director James Comey or, um, Hillary herself -- for the defeat,” Axios’ Mike Allen writes. “The reason: Clintonites feel that if Obama had come out early and forcefully with evidence of Russian interference in the campaign, and perhaps quicker sanctions, she might be president today. His caution, they argue, allowed the public to have a foggy sense of clear, calculated, consistent Russian meddling in the campaign. We can't stress enough how upset some Democrats are. It's testing relationships between Clinton and Obama loyalists. It's making efforts to form a new Trump opposition coalition harder.”
What were other new presidents doing at this point in their presidency (Jan. 31)?
- Barack Obama continues to push his stimulus plan, which is still pending in the U.S. Senate after having passed the House
- George W. Bush has a “get acquainted” call with Vladimir Putin. He also holds his first Cabinet meeting and huddles with black leaders at the White House
- Bill Clinton throws a state dinner for the nation’s governors
- George H.W. Bush takes his first out-of-town trip as president to address military issues in Norfolk, Va. On the Hill, conservative activist Paul Weyrich publicly accuses Bush Defense pick John Tower of public drunkenness and affairs.
- Reagan spends his weekend at Camp David
- Jimmy Carter formally proposes a $31.2 billion economic recovery package