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.
Status quo heading into the holidays
After two debates in the past week, several new controversies, and even a new “Saturday Night Live” episode lampooning it all, both the Republican and Democratic presidential races are unchanged heading into the holiday doldrums. On the Republican side, Donald Trump remains the overall frontrunner; Ted Cruz has a clear path to victory in Iowa; and Marco Rubio is still trying to break through in an early state. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is in firm control; Bernie Sanders, though, is still making it very interesting in both Iowa and (especially) New Hampshire; and Martin O’Malley has still been unable to break through. So it’s the status quo heading into the Christmas and New Year’s holidays -- and before the four-week sprint into the Iowa caucuses that will begin on Jan.3.
Hillary vs. Trump: Has Trump has been a recruitment tool for ISIS?
A fight between the Democratic frontrunner (Clinton) and Republican frontrunner (Trump) has been the driving political story over the last 24 hours. It all started when Hillary Clinton said this of Trump at the Democratic debate on Saturday night: “He is becoming ISIS’ best recruiter. They are going to people, showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press” the next morning (as well as on “Today” this morning), Trump fired back. “[N]obody has been able to back that up. It's nonsense. It's just another Hillary lie. She lies like crazy about everything, whether it's trips where she was being gunned down in a helicopter or an airplane, she's a liar and everybody knows that. But she just made this up in thin air,” he said on “Meet” yesterday. While the Clinton campaign backs up her claim with articles like this one -- “Donald Trump's Muslim Bashing Aids Cause of Terror Networks, Say Experts” -- we’ve found no proof of ISIS using Trump its videos. Yet here’s the kicker to this entire controversy: Trump said on “Meet” that he wouldn’t change his rhetoric, even if ISIS uses it in the future. “No, because I think that my words represent toughness and strength. Hillary's not strong, Hillary's weak, frankly.”
Let us praise strong men
Speaking of strength, Trump continued to praise Vladimir Putin when one of us asked him about it on “Meet” yesterday.
TODD: Why are you so comfortable praising Vladimir Putin?
TRUMP: I'm not, I didn't praise him, he praised me. He called me brilliant. He said very nice things about me. I mean, I accept it--
TODD: Well you’ve called him a strong leader--
TRUMP: He is a strong leader. What am I gonna say, he's a weak leader? He's making mincemeat out of our President. He is a strong leader. I mean, you would like me to call him a weak leader, he's a strong leader. And I'm not going to be politically correct. He's got an 80% of approval rating done by pollsters from, I understand, this country, okay? So it's not even done by his pollsters. He's very popular within Russia. Now that may change, but I didn't say anything one way or the other. He came out with a very nice statement about me and I said, "That's very nice, I'm honored by it."
Also on ABC, Trump said that there was no proof Putin has killed journalists in Russia. “But, in all fairness to Putin, you're saying he killed people. I haven't' seen that. I don't know that he has. Have you been able to prove that? Do you know the names of the reporters that he's killed?”
Obama vs. Trump
“President Obama said in a radio interview airing on Monday that Donald J. Trump, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, is exploiting the resentment and anxieties of working-class men to boost his campaign. Mr. Obama also argued that some of the scorn directed at him personally stems from the fact that he is the first African-American to hold the White House,” the New York Times writes of Obama’s interview on NPR. “You combine those things, and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear — some of it justified, but just misdirected,” the president added. “I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.”
That DNC/data story isn’t 100% over
Although Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders hugged it out over the allegation that a fired Sanders staffer (or staffers) stole data files from the Clinton campaign -- as well as the Sanders counterclaim that the DNC unfairly froze the campaign out of the voter file as a result of the controversy -- the story isn’t 100% over. As it turns out, both the DNC and the vendor (NGP VAN) argue that the Sanders campaign did take *something* from Team Clinton. Here’s the statement from NGP VAN: “[A] one page-style report containing summary data on a list was saved out of VoteBuilder by one Sanders user. This is what some people have referred to as the ‘export’ from VoteBuilder.” (NGP VAN adds, however, that the Sanders campaign was unable to access the actual voters and their information with the Clinton camp’s voter lists.) And here’s the DNC: “As a result of this [after-action] analysis, NGP VAN found that campaign staff on the Sanders campaign, including the campaign’s national data director, had accessed proprietary information about which voters were being targeted by the Clinton campaign — and in doing so violated their agreements with the DNC.” And so it raises the question: Does the Sanders campaign still have this summary data/proprietary information? And if so, is it going to give it back?
Rubio: “Not voting for it is a vote against it”
Another missed vote is dogging Marco Rubio and his campaign. Asked by CBS why he criticized the recently passed omnibus spending bill – but didn’t show up for the vote, Rubio gave a John Kerry-like response: "In essence, not voting for it, is a vote against it," he said. Per NBC’s Hallie Jackson, Rubio Communications Director Alex Conant said Rubio’s comment here was "specific to this instance." In other words, Jackson explains, not all of Rubio's missed Senate votes are intended to indicate a "no" vote. Conant also noted: "It's verbatim the same argument Ted Cruz made when he skipped the Loretta Lynch vote." Conant added of the omnibus vote: "It had the practical impact of a no vote. If his vote would've made a difference, we would have been there to vote against it. He didn't return to DC because his presence would not have had any impact."
Today’s an important deadline for Lindsey Graham (and the rest of the GOP field)
Finally, today is a deadline for the GOP field -- and especially Lindsey Graham. As NBC’s Kasie Hunt reported earlier this month, “South Carolina's State Election Commission has warned the state's Republican Party: If a candidate wants to stay off the ballot for the Feb. 20 presidential primary, they have until Dec. 21 to get out of the race,” NBC’s Kasie Hunt wrote earlier this month. “It's set a potentially critical deadline for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who will have to weigh whether it's worth continuing his long shot presidential bid in the face of a potentially embarrassing showing in his home state.”
On the trail
Donald Trump holds a rally in Grand Rapids, MI at 7:30 pm ET… Marco Rubio campaigns in New Hampshire… Jeb Bush and Ben Carson are also in Granite State… Ditto Chris Christie and John Kasich… And Mike Huckabee and Bernie Sanders are in Iowa.
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