Trump's biggest problem might be the competency question

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

President Donald Trump speaks during his Oval Office meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron (not pictured) following the official arrival ceremony for Macron at the White House on April 24, 2018 in Washington.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — This morning, President Trump’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs withdrew his nomination after new allegations against him surfaced. Today, Congress is expected to grill the president’s EPA administrator over alleged ethical lapses. And the president’s personal lawyer and fixer is pleading the Fifth Amendment.

Yes, it’s chaos and controversy, which we’ve constantly chronicled here. But it’s also a matter of competency. According to this month’s NBC/WSJ poll, a majority of Americans — 56 percent — said that Trump’s administration isn’t competent, including 39 percent who said it isn’t competent at all. By contrast, 43 percent said it was competent, including 16 percent who said “very competent.”

To put those numbers into perspective, 50 percent of American said Barack Obama’s administration was competent in June 2014 (so after the Obamacare website crash during his second term), and 53 percent said George W. Bush’s administration was competent in March 2006 (after Hurricane Katrina).

So for all the potential dangers to Trump’s presidency — the Russia investigation, historically low approval ratings, Democrats possibly winning the House (and Senate) in November — the biggest could very well be the competency question.

Indeed, majorities of women (61 percent), seniors (58 percent), millennials (57 percent), independents (57 percent) and men (51 percent) said the Trump administration wasn’t too competent or not competent at all. Even whites were split down the middle — 50-50.

That’s a big problem.

By the way, according to NBC News, Trump VA pick Ronny Jackson has become at least the 24th unsuccessful Trump nominee to a Senate confirmable job.

Ronny Jackson withdraws:“The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated”:

Here is the statement that Ronny Jackson released in withdrawing his nomination to be VA secretary:

One of the greatest honors in my life has been to serve this country as a physician both on the battlefield with United States Marines and as proud member of the United States Navy.It has been my distinct honor and privilege to work at the White House and serve three Presidents.Going into this process, I expected tough questions about how to best care for our veterans, but I did not expect to have to dignify baseless and anonymous attacks on my character and integrity.The allegations against me are completely false and fabricated. If they had any merit, I would not have been selected, promoted and entrusted to serve in such a sensitive and important role as physician to three presidents over the past 12 years.In my role as a doctor, I have tirelessly worked to provide excellent care for all my patients. In doing so, I have always adhered to the highest ethical standards.Unfortunately, because of how Washington works, these false allegations have become a distraction for this President and the important issue we must be addressing — how we give the best care to our nation’s heroes.While I will forever be grateful for the trust and confidence President Trump has placed in me by giving me this opportunity, I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination to be Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

No matter your opinions on Jackson, it’s a bit discomforting how the allegations against him were made public

A final note on Jackson: Even if you fault the Team Trump for its lack of vetting or for firing Trump’s original VA secretary in the first place, you have to be a bit uncomfortable in how the allegations against Jackson became public.

And it all sets up a precedent that could haunt future presidents and presidential nominees.

Here’s one of us asking Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., about the process:

CHUCK TODD: Are you comfortable that all of these allegations are true enough that they belong in the public arena yet or do you think some of these need to be run down and investigated and corroborated before you release it to the public?TESTER: The question is how do you corroborate? I think what we have seen is a pattern of problems that people deserve to know. I know a lot of people from the White House have said we shouldn't be doing this, but look it would be senatorial malpractice not to follow-up on this issue and not find out who Ronny Jackson is. You know Chuck, I have never done this before, I don't know, I just want to get the best person that's possible because our veterans deserve that. And if a guy comes in the VA Sec position with a bunch of baggage it is going to limit his ability to make the VA the best it can be.

Pruitt sits in the hot seat

NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell, Hallie Jackson and Alex Moe: “Supporters of embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt are starting to raise questions about his alleged ethical lapses, a shift in tone that could spell trouble as he appears before Congress Thursday.”

“After a string of stinging revelations detailing excessive expenditures on security, travel and raises for staff, Pruitt can expect to be grilled and called to answer for his decisions. But while he will be answering questions from two separate House committees, the person whose opinion will matter most is President Donald Trump.”

Macron warns of the consequences of Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal

In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, French President Macron said he ultimately doesn’t know what Trump will do about the Iran nuclear deal on May 12, but he warned that killing the deal “would open Pandora’s box,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reports. Macron added, "Do you want to make war with Iran? I don't think your president wants to make war with Iran."

Macron suggested Trump's experience with North Korea is influencing him, now that he realizes there is the possibility of a deal with North Korea, per Mitchell. "His experience with North Korea is that when you are very tough, you make the other side move and you can try to go to a good deal or a better deal… That's a strategy of increasing tension" he said, "It could be useful."

Calling it a "paradox," Macron said Trump could get out of the Iran deal on May 12 for domestic political reasons because it was such an important campaign promise. "When people say President Trump is not predictable, I think the opposite, he is very predictable. Look at his campaign commitments."

Macron delivers rebuke to Trumpism in speech to Congress

Meanwhile, about that bro-mance between Macron and Trump — CNBC’s John Harwood writes that Macron’s earlier speech to Congress was a rebuke to Trumpism, without mentioning Trump by name. “‘We can choose isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism,’ Macron said in the well of the House of Representatives. ‘It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears.’”

More: “The French president warned that trade wars, rather than trade deals, ‘destroy jobs’ and raise prices for the middle class. He appealed to the U.S. to rejoin the Paris climate accord and create a ‘low-carbon economy’ because ‘there is no Planet B.’ He said remaining with America's allies in the Iran nuclear deal, at least until some replacement is negotiated, is the best path for fighting terrorism, preserving peace and avoiding nuclear proliferation.”

The parties spent at least $48.5 million on the special elections of 2017-2018, with the GOP dropping a total of $37 million

“Major national Republican and Democratic party groups have spent at least $48.5 million on seven special elections since last April,” one of us writes. “The lion's share of that spending — which includes independent and coordinated expenditures for each of the races — came from Republicans, with a total of $37 million spent in total by the Republican National Committee, the NRCC, the NRSC and the two major super PACs affiliated with the House and Senate GOP (the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Senate Leadership Fund).”

More: “Democratic Party groups — including the Democratic National Committee, the DCCC, the DSCC and the House Majority PAC — spent only about $11.5 million on independent expenditures and coordinated campaign expenditures in the same seven races.”

GOP’s winning margin in AZ-8 shrinks to 4 points after new votes are counted

By the way, we noted yesterday that Republican Debbie Lesko beat Democrat Hiral Tipirneni by 6 points, 53 percent to 47 percent (when you round up their numbers). But the GOP’s winning margin decreased after new votes were counted in the AZ-8 contest: Lesko 52.4 percent, Tipirneni 47.6 percent.

Rundown on the 2018 midterms

In case you missed them, here are some of the recent midterm developments that we’ve chronicled on our “Rundown” blog: Another poll shows a tight race in the Tennessee Senate contest: Democrat Phil Bredesen 46 percent, Republican Marsha Blackburn 43 percent… Heidi Heitkamp is up with her first TV ad… And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants Blake Farenthold to pay for the special election to replace him, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard.