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.
The state of our democracy isn't so strong
Three days ago, President Obama warned about the health of America's democracy. "Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it's really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own," Obama said. "Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That's up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured." Three days later, the outgoing president doesn't seem to be that wrong about the state of our democracy, especially when it comes to key American institutions. Consider all of the news from this week alone: A good chunk of Americans — without substantiation as of now — believe President-elect Trump is somehow compromised by the Russian government; Trump continues to criticize the U.S. intelligence community; Trump's incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn reportedly phoned Russia's ambassador multiple times after the Obama administration announced its sanctions on Russia, according to the Washington Post's David Ignatius; only 44% of Americans approve of Trump's performance so far, per Gallup (versus 83% for Obama at this same time eight years ago); an inspector general is now reviewing FBI Director James Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email story, especially in the election's final days; Trump tweeted this morning that Clinton was "guilty as hell"; and Trump scolded the news media at his press conference ("You are fake news," he directed at one outlet).
Just look at the lack of confidence in these American institutions
If all of these events and stories were taking place in another country, we'd say that country had become unstable. But these things are happening here in the United States — this week and seven days before the inauguration of the nation's new president. And just to remind you, here's the percentage of adults who have a combined "great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence in 20 different American institutions, according to last month's NBC/WSJ poll:
Folks, that's just three of 20 American institutions — the military, law enforcement, small business — where a majority of Americans have a great deal or quite a bit of confidence in them. We all have some major work to do.
Trump vs. his cabinet nominees
As the New York Times points out, this week's confirmation hearings have highlighted some mighty big differences between Trump and his cabinet nominees on key issues. "James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, who long ago expressed his opposition to torture, said on Thursday that if he were confirmed as defense secretary he would support the Iran nuclear agreement, which Mr. Trump has derided... Mr. Tillerson rejected a ban on Muslim immigrants, called the United States' commitment to NATO "inviolable" — again contradicting Mr. Trump — and said he did not agree with Mr. Trump's previous comments that Japan should perhaps obtain nuclear weapons... And Mr. Trump's pick to head the C.I.A., Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, vigorously defended the intelligence agencies, which Mr. Trump has derided." Right now, these contradictions are an asset for Team Trump. The question is whether that will be the case months from now. "It suggests to me that Donald Trump wants advisers who will bring him different views," Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told the Times. "That would be very healthy. Or it could lead to confused messages both to our allies and our adversaries."
How McCain, Graham, and Rubio drove the week
If there's another theme to this week's confirmation hearings, it's how Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio dominated them — all on the issue of Russia. Rubio, for instance, ripped into Tillerson, and McCain made Russia the focus of his questions for Mattis. It appears that these three GOP senators see it to be their job to check the incoming Trump administration on the issue of Russia. And if so, that sets up a fascinating dynamic in the weeks and months ahead.
Chris Coons: "I've frankly been reflecting on if not Mr. Tillerson, who else might President-elect Trump choose"
While we're all watching to see if Rubio decides to vote against Tillerson, don't miss this quote from Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE): "I haven't made up my mind yet," Coons said on MSNBC's "Hardball" last night. "I have been reflecting on a number of answers he gave that were positive, but really different from what President-elect Trump has said, both in the campaign and in recent days. I've frankly been reflecting on if not Mr. Tillerson, who else might President-elect Trump chose." Wow. Could it possible that Tillerson might lose Rubio's vote — but pick up a Democratic vote, because of the fear of Tillerson's replacement?
Obama ends "wet foot, dry foot" policy on Cuba. What will Trump do?
Finally, there was this news yesterday from the outgoing Obama administration: "The Obama administration is ending a policy, dubbed 'wet foot, dry foot,' which gave Cuban arrivals to the U.S. residency even if they didn't have visas, the White House announced Thursday." Politically, this presents the incoming Trump administration with a fascinating choice: Do they overturn the move, especially given Trump's rhetoric on immigration? Do remember, some of Trump's harshest GOP critics have come from the Cuban-American community, so he might not think he has to do them any favors, particularly if it means contradicting himself on immigration.