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Another day of pins and needles as yet another White House shakeup looms

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
by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /
Image: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens during a meeting
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens during a meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 2, 2018.Evan Vucci / AP

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WASHINGTON — It’s Friday. The president hasn’t tweeted yet. But there are three people in Washington who are going to be particularly interested in what he has to say today: John Kelly, H.R. McMaster and Jeff Sessions.

All day, Washington will once again be on pink slip watch, waiting to see if any of the numerous administration officials rumored to be on the chopping block meet the same fate as ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In the latest round of speculation, two weeks after NBC reported that the administration was preparing for the departure of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, The Washington Post and The New York Times both report that Trump has definitely decided to oust him and is actively talking about potential replacements.

The White House denies an imminent change, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeting last night “Contrary to reports they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC.” Also mentioned in both stories as being on thin ice with the president are Kelly (who CBS also reports may be on the way out), Sessions, Ben Carson, David Shulkin, and pretty much any other Cabinet official who’s been facing embarrassing headlines in the last few weeks.

It’s become a familiar pattern in this White House: These stories about possible staff shakeups are accurate in the moment they are written, but Trump does change his mind without warning. Sometimes he’s serious about changing his team, sometimes he’s just spitballing, and it can be tough for anyone to figure out the difference and whether any decisions will stick. Plus, as the Times puts it, “the president is known to enjoy keeping people off kilter.”

Something’s coming. The only thing we don’t know about the next set of shakeups is how big it’s going to be.

GOP Judiciary senators want second special counsel to investigate handling of Russia investigation

Speaking of Sessions, Republicans Chuck Grassley, John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis sent a letter yesterday to Sessions and Rod Rosenstein asking for a separate special counsel to help the DOJ inspector general probe how the Justice Department and the FBI handled the Trump-Russia investigation before Robert Mueller’s appointment last year. Cornyn’s inclusion is an interesting development — he’s a member of GOP leadership and someone who’s notably said it would be a mistake for Trump to fire Mueller.

There are two possible reasons for why these senators are making this move now. One, it could just be a cynical ploy to try to disrupt the ongoing investigation. But here’s a more interesting hypothesis: They could be trying to give Sessions some cover. If Sessions agrees to beef up this internal investigation, does it give him some protection against Trump’s fury at the Russia probe, keeping him in the job longer and preserving Mueller’s ongoing work? By the way, Grassley himself came out and said yesterday that he “would not be comfortable” if Trump ousted Sessions.

Mueller subpoenas Trump Organization documents

Breaking in the New York Times yesterday: “The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has subpoenaed the Trump Organization to turn over documents, including some related to Russia, according to two people briefed on the matter. The order is the first known instance of the special counsel demanding records directly related to President Trump’s businesses, bringing the investigation closer to the president.” (Our question: Why a subpoena rather than just asking for cooperation? One theory: Could it be a test by Mueller to see if what the Trump Organization hands over matches what Mueller already has?)

It’s also worth noting that Mueller’s public credibility remains solid. First, yesterday, the administration announced sanctions against the same 13 Russians indicted by Mueller for election meddling, seeming to validate the investigation’s finding. And then this new poll from the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of Americans — 61 percent — still say they are very or somewhat confident that he’ll conduct a fair investigation. That’s been fairly stable since December, even ticking up a little in recent months.

The sixty-five million dollar race

We’re used to seeing some pretty eye-popping sums on television advertising, but the spending in the Illinois governors race is really off the charts. Two extremely wealthy candidates— incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic frontrunner and billionaire J.B. Pritzker — have faced tougher-than-expected primary challenges, and they’ve been shoveling cash into ad buys for months ahead of Tuesday’s election day.

Pritzker’s campaign alone has spent over $33 million on TV ads, while Rauner has spent more than $16 million. All told, the spending (for a primary!) is over $65 million already. If the two super-wealthy candidates face off for a long general election here, this is set to be the most expensive race in the country — without anyone else even coming close. And our ad gurus say that it’s on track to be the most expensive non-presidential race they’ve ever tracked.

Here are the TV spending totals in the primary, according to ad-tracking group Advertising Analytics.

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