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Giuliani in new statement: Any comments about Trump Tower Moscow timeline 'hypothetical'

In a statement to NBC News Monday, President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said he was being “hypothetical” when he said a day earlier that the president had discussions about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow as late as November, 2016.

“My recent statements about discussions during the 2016 campaign between Michael Cohen and then-candidate Donald Trump about a potential Trump Moscow ‘project’ were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the President," Giuliani said in a statement to NBC News. 

"My comments did not represent the actual timing or circumstances of any such discussions. The point is that the proposal was in the earliest stage and did not advance beyond a free non-binding letter of intent.”

During a Sunday interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," Giuliani said that President Trump wrote in response to questions from special counsel Robert Mueller that he remembers having conversations about the project well into 2016.

When pressed on how late in 2016 the Trump Organization had designs on building the project in Moscow, Giuliani said he couldn't be sure. But kept the door open to the prospect of negotiations up Election Day.

"Probably could be up to as far as October, November — our answers cover until the election," he said.

"So anytime during that period they could've talked about it. But the president's recollection of it is that the thing had petered out quite a bit.”

Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer who helped to spearhead the Russia negotiations, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the timing of the project. He initially told Congress the project was scuttled in January of 2016, but admitted to working on it as late as June. 

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Ben Kamisar

Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson undecided on whether to support Trump emergency declaration

After President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’s concerned about the precedent the declaration might set for future presidents.

But he wouldn't say whether he'll vote to approve Trump’s emergency declaration, which would allow him to repurpose funds to build his border wall, because Democrats have "thwarted" the president's attempts to secure the borders

“I'm going to take a look at the case the president makes. And I'm also going to take a look at how quickly this money is actually going to be spent, versus what he's going to use,” he said.

“If he's not going to be spending it this fiscal year or very early in the next fiscal year, I would have my doubts. So again, I'm going to take a look at it and I’ll, you know, I'll decide when I actually have to vote on it.” 

Trump announced a national emergency on Friday as part of a larger plan to repurpose government dollars to fund his wall, while agreeing to sign the bipartisan spending deal that avoids a government shutdown. That congressional plan included almost $1.4 billion for border fencing in Texas, far short of the billions more Trump has said he wants for the wall.

The move is controversial, and opponents are already readying legal challenges questioning whether it’s constitutional. Democrats have also raised the prospect of holding a vote to disapprove of the declaration in the House, which would, by congressional rules, trigger a Senate vote if passed by the Democratic-majority body. 

And while some on the right have celebrated the move as a commitment to Trump’s signature campaign promise, others have raised broad concerns that the declaration could open the door for future Democratic presidents to declare emergencies on issues like climate change and gun violence. 

The full interview with Johnson will air on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” on NBC. Check your local listings for the broadcast time in your market.

Stacey Abrams: ‘I’m going to run for something’

Speaking at the DNC winter meeting in Washington Friday, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams reflected on her gubernatorial campaign, discussed her new voting rights initiative and promised she’s not done running for office.

“I’m going to run for something,” Abrams said as she took the stage with shouts of “run” from the audience. She then teased the crowd by saying that she might run for president — of her homeowners’ association.

Abrams spoke about the success of her 2018 gubernatorial campaign, despite the fact that she narrowly lost. She touted the record voter turnout rates, diversity of issues she talked about, money raised and communities she reached. “We don’t have to ignore any voting bloc,” she said.

Abrams explained,“I do not regret the campaign I ran” because she is proud of the record increases in voter turnouts and political engagement. She said her campaign “worked except for voter suppression.”

After several election controversies in the 2018 midterms, she established the Fair Fight Action to advocate for free and fair elections. Abrams said voter suppression is “baked into our DNA” by ways of poll taxes, registration discrepancies, ballot access and more.

Looking to 2019 and 2020 elections, she said, “We are a 50 state country and we have to run 50 state campaigns.” Abrams stressed the importance of talking to people in all communities in all states. “I talked about issues we were not supposed to talk about,” she said.

Monica Alba

The End of 'Mexico Will Pay?'

Now that President Trump has accepted a budget deal that provides for $1.375 billion in funding for barrier-building on the southern border and declared a national emergency in a bid to secure more, the idea that Mexico would pay for the wall appears finally to be retired. 

But the insistence has been absent from the president's rhetoric for quite some time already. At his first rally of the year last week, Trump hit many of the familiar notes supporters have come to expect at the freewheeling, raucous events. Notably absent, and seemingly forgotten, was his frequent promise that Mexico would pay for a border wall.

In fact, Trump hasn’t repeated the dubious claim in months and it was largely missing from the 2018 midterms as well. 

The shift away from this central pledge was evident last month.

“During the campaign, I would say, ‘Mexico is going to pay for it.’ Obviously, I never said this and I never meant they’re going to write out a check. I said, ‘They’re going to pay for it.’ They are. They are paying for it with the incredible deal we made, called the United States, Mexico, and Canada USMCA deal,” he told reporters in January. 

There is nothing in the trade deal, however, that requires Mexico to pay for a wall, not to mention that it hasn’t been ratified by Congress yet.

The last time Trump definitively stated that “Mexico is going to pay” was May of last year at a Make America Great Again rally in Nashville, Tennessee. “I don't want to cause a problem. I don't want to cause it. But, in the end, Mexico is going to pay for the wall. I'm just telling you,” Trump told the chanting crowd. “They're going to pay for the wall and they're going to enjoy it. OK?”

In the months prior, the president had started to couch the promise, by adding “in some form.” The common catchphrase had extended beyond the trail and into his time in the White House at various events and in multiple tweets.

“With Mexico being one of the highest crime Nations in the world, we must have THE WALL. Mexico will pay for it through reimbursement/other," he tweeted on August 27.  

But gone was the notorious call and response from 2016 where Trump would ask, “who is going to pay for the wall?” and thousands of people at his rallies would roar back: “MEXICO!”

On Monday in El Paso, just blocks from the border, the president’s priority for the evening was clear. Giant red banners that said “FINISH THE WALL” flanked an American flag as the backdrop.  

Notably, there was no mention of Mexico paying for said wall, a major departure from his campaign staple a few years ago.

“So a lot of politicians said you can't get Mexico to pay for the wall. I said, it's going to be so easy. It's going to be so easy,” candidate Trump predicted in Iowa, just two days before the 2016 election.

Former Mass. Gov. Bill Weld announces exploratory bid to challenge Trump in GOP primary

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld launched a presidential exploratory committee in New Hampshire Friday, making him the first Republican officially eying a longshot GOP primary challenge to President Donald Trump.

“I’m here because I think our country is in grave peril,” Weld said at an announcement at a “Politics and Eggs” breakfast in New Hampshire, a frequent stop for presidential candidates. “I cannot sit quietly on the sidelines any longer.”

"We cannot sit passively as our precious democracy slips quietly into darkness," he said.

Weld, who served as governor in the Bay State from 1991 to 1997, was the Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee in 2016, when former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson topped the party’s ticket. But he recently changed his party registration back to the GOP.

In his Friday morning address, Weld criticized Trump for failing to champion freedom of the press and to “denounce appalling instances of racism.”

He also pressed for U.S. leaders to address climate change and longer work visas for immigrants. 

While Weld’s possible run could provide an outlet for Republicans dissatisfied with Trump, a bid would largely be viewed as a dark horse candidacy. While Trump’s national approval rating remains mired in the 40s, almost nine in ten Republicans approve of his performance.

Ben Kamisar

Harris wins endorsement from Barbara Lee

California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee is endorsing Kamala Harris's presidential bid, a high-profile endorsement from her fellow Golden Stater who has deep ties to the progressive caucus and the black community. 

Lee backed Harris in a statement that evoked Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman both elected to Congress and to run for president for a major party. 

"Shirley set us on a path toward progress, and now Senator Kamala Harris picks up the baton," Lee said. 

“As just the third African American woman from a major party to run for President, I am so proud to endorse her candidacy as she continues this fight for equality, fairness, and dignity for all Americans. Watching Kamala’s career in the East Bay and San Francisco for 20 years, I’ve witnessed her deep passion for justice and opportunity, and I know she will be a president truly of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Lee previously chaired the Congressional Black Caucus and has significant clout with black lawmakers. She has also long fought to check presidential war powers and was notably the only lawmaker to vote against the authorization for war in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

The congresswoman joins the Harris campaign as its California co-chair, giving her a boost in her home state, which will award a healthy amount of delegates in the 2020 primary race. 

Ben Kamisar

One quarter of registered voters, almost half of Republicans, believe God wanted Trump to win 2016 election

Almost half of registered Republican voters agree with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that God "wanted Donald Trump to become president," a new Fox News poll shows. 

Forty-five percent of Republicans agree with the sentiment—the Fox poll didn't mention Sanders by name, referring to a recent comment by a "White House spokesperson." That number represents a plurality, as 37 percent of Republicans disagree. 

Overall, one-quarter of registered voters share that view while 62 percent said they do not believe God wanted Trump to be commander-in-chief.

That number—one quarter of a sample—is consistent with other polls on God's influence in events. The Public Religion Research Institute's January 2017 poll found that 25 percent of Americans "completely agree" or "mostly agree" with the idea that "God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event."  That same poll found similar support for the idea that God played a role in the 2016 election too. 

Back to the Fox News poll, white evangelicals are the only demographic subgroup where a majority—55 percent—agrees with Sanders. 

And while few Democrats believe that God was pulling for Trump in 2016, 8 percent of registered voters who backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in that election said they do believe a higher power wanted Trump to be president. 

Read more from the full poll here

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Hickenlooper sips craft beer in New Hampshire

Former Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper may be thousands of miles away from Denver, but a sip of craft beer may have helped him feel right at home during his swing through New Hampshire. 

The former brewery owner is in the Granite State as he considers running for president—the Washington Post's Dave Weigel reported from a Wednesday evening house party that Hickenlooper talked up the aspects of the Green New Deal as "powerful" while cautioning America doesn't have "endless amounts of money" and discussed his change of heart over the marijuana legalization, among other issues. 

And WMUR notes that the Democrat brushed aside concerns about handling attacks from Trump:  "If you've got a name like Hickenlooper and you're a skinny kid with thick glasses, you learn how to deal with bullies."  

Read more from WMUR here, a Twitter thread from Weigel (including a picture of Hickenlooper with his New Hampshire craft brew) here, and more stories from the 2020 trail below. 

  • South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg sat down with MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Thursday, where he discussed where he fits on the party's ideological spectrum. "I consider myself a pretty strong progressive but I don't consider the left center spectrum to be the most useful way to look at our politics right now because I think it’s gotten jumbled up both by the current president and by the pace of change," he said. 
  • President Trump;'s allies see Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker at the top of the Democratic presidential primary so far, with Trump reportedly believing former Vice President Joe Biden would be the toughest general election nominee, according to Politico
  • NBC News' Jane C. Timm details how chummy the early weeks of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign—which pits Senate colleagues against each other—and explores whether it can last. 
  • The Associated Press reports that the Democratic National Committee will announce its debate qualifications this week. 
  • Politico reports that former Texas Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as some Democrats hope O'Rourke runs for Senate again against Republican Sen. John Cornyn. 

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Booker says he'll be "looking" first for a female vice president

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker is thinking ahead, and he says he'll prioritize looking for a woman to join him on the ticket if he wins his party's presidential nomination. 

Appearing on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," Booker said while he wouldn't "make any specific commitments," he believes future Democratic tickets will include diverse candidates. 

"We have such a great field of leaders,  I think you will rarely see a Democratic ticket anymore without gender diversity, race diversity," he said. 

"I think it's something that we should have.  So, I’m not going to box myself in, but should I come to it, you know I’ll be looking to women first."

Click here to watch more from the interview and read more in the 2020 roundup below. 

  • Whether or not he decides to run for president, Michael Bloomberg is gearing up to spend at least a half a billion dollars to stop President Trump from being elected to a second term—either by funding his own bid or funding a data and field program meant to support the Democratic nominee, Politico reports.
  • Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar raised $1 million in the first two days since her presidential campaign launched on Sunday. That's a healthy chunk of change, but less than California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris' $1.5 million she raised in the first 24 hours. 
  • Virtually the entire Democratic presidential field has called on Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to resign, to no avail, and many have called for further investigation into sexual assault allegations against Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. With the ugly situation in Virginia continuing to drag on, NBC News' Elena Moore compiled a rundown of how the candidates have responded so far. 
  • During his CNN town hall on Tuesday night, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz again unveiled few policy specifics upon which he'd base a presidential campaign. Read more analysis in today's First Read.
  • Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. sat down with Teen Vogue to discuss the historic nature of his presidential bid—if he wins, he'd be the first openly gay president (or party nominee) in American history.  

How 2020 Democrats have responded to the mess in Virginia (so far)

With Virginia's top statehouse Democrats at the center of high-profile criticism, the Democrats' possible presidential candidates have had to wrestle with two important issues—allegations of sexual misconduct and racism. 

In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam is refusing to step down despite overwhelming calls for his resignation following the discovery of a racist photo in his medical school yearbook and an admission he appeared in blackface years ago.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax's political future is uncertain as he's been faced with two different allegations of sexual assault, which he's denied and argued were consensual. Amid calls for his own resignation, Fairfax is advocating for an independent investigation into the claims and a bid to impeach him has reportedly lost steam for now. 

As of Feb. 12, all nine candidates who have announced their bids or exploratory committees have called for Northam's resignation, and virtually all of the prospective candidates have too. The vast majority of official candidates, and many prospective candidates, are at least calling for further investigations into Fairfax, while some want his resignation. 

No candidates have made statements on Virginia attorney general Mark Herring's admission to also wearing blackface while in college. 

The dynamic raises the possibility that the eventual nominee could have called for the resignation of whoever happens to be governor by Election Day 2020. 

If Northam, Fairfax and Herring all resign—which remains unlikely—the governorship would swing to Republican control, with Republican speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox next in line. 

Take a look at how the party's presidential candidates, and possible candidates, have addressed these scandals so far:

Called for Northam's resignation

Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Amy KlobucharJulián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard (if he "cannot win back the trust of his constituents), John Delaney, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Sherrod Brown, Michael Bloomberg, Jay Inslee, Terry McAuliffe, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, and Jeff Merkley

Called for Fairfax's resignation

Booker, Harris, Gillibrand, Warren, Klobuchar, Castro, Sanders, Bennet, and McAuliffe

Called for more investigation into Fairfax allegations

Gabbard and Swalwell

Ben Kamisar

2020 roundup: Holder to decide in coming weeks

It's time to add another name to the list of potential Democratic presidential candidates—former Attorney General Eric Holder. 

NPR is reporting that Holder will decide whether to run for president in the next two weeks, after he delivers a speech Thursday at Drake University Law School in Des Moines.

In the speech, according to excerpts obtained by NPR, Holder will blast the Trump administration as "rife with corruption, stunning incompetence and shameful intolerance" as well as for a "total abdication of moral and policy leadership." 

Read more from Holder's speech and about his possible bid here, and check out the latest stories from the blossoming 2020 presidential race below. 

  • One thing was clear during President Trump's speech in El Paso—former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke was on the president's mind. Trump mentioned O'Rourke on multiple occasions, deriding the crowd size at the protest O'Rourke and others organized (even though NBC and others reported that O'Rourke's rally was quite well attended). As First Read wrote today, Trump not only elevated the Texan last night, but he made clear that he's paying attention to the potential 2020 candidate. 
  • Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton launched his 2020 trial balloon Tuesday during a foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institution, where he compared the clean-up job needed after Trump leaves office to when "your old house gets damaged by a bad renter." Read the Rundown's preview of the speech here
  • Another Bay Stater, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, appeared at the National Conference of American Indians' conference in Washington, HuffPost reports. Warren is looking to move on from blowback about her claims of as having Native American ancestry. 
  • NBC's Vaughn Hilyard reports the Iowa Democrats are adding a virtual caucus to next year's caucuses, as well as a paper trail in case of a recount request. Read more about the new changes here
  • And while you're adding Holder to your list, don't put the cap on your pen, because here comes New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Politico reports  he's preparing to travel to New Hampshire to meet with a local mayor and holding a meet and greet with organizers, moves that only contribute to speculation he's considering a presidential bid.