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.
WASHINGTON — Right before Virginia’s gubernatorial race and on the very day that House Republicans unveiled their tax bill, Democrats, well, were fighting against each other. The first example came from former DNC interim Chair Donna Brazile, who alleged that the Clinton campaign engaged in a “secret takeover” of the DNC during the 2016 primary race.
Hours later, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was asked if the Democratic race was rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton, Warren answered, “Yes.” And last night, the liberal group Democracy for America said it would no longer directly aid Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia’s gubernatorial race after Northam said he would sign a bill to ban “sanctuary cities” if a locality tries to become one. (Right now, there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia.)
Add them all up, and Thursday was an awful day for Democrats, exposing wounds that still haven’t healed after 2016 and disunity on the eve of Virginia’s big gubernatorial race. And Brazile’s allegation, in particular, was throwing a grenade inside the Democratic National Committee, given that current DNC Chair Tom Perez was supported by Clinton/Obama forces over the Bernie-backed Keith Ellison. So the collateral damage could be Perez, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (who has 2020 ambitions) and even next week’s Virginia gubernatorial race.
And no one is happier about this right now than President Trump. “The real story on Collusion is in Donna B's new book. Crooked Hillary bought the DNC & then stole the Democratic Primary from Crazy Bernie!” he tweeted this morning.
Now there are some important facts to this story:
Brazile’s allegation is over a Joint Fundraising Agreement that Clinton signed with the DNC in August 2015, and JFAs are standard operating procedure for presidential candidates – Trump signed one with the RNC, and Bernie Sanders did, too, in November 2015.
What Brazile contends, however, is that the Clinton campaign made personnel and spending demands with its agreement.
Now all presidential nominees take over the party as soon as they become the presumptive nominee – Trump and Clinton did it in 2016, Mitt Romney did it in 2012, Barack Obama in 2008.
But Brazile says that the Clinton takeover of the DNC came too soon. In fact, Clinton campaign sources tell NBC News that they didn’t control the DNC until June (after the primary season had ended), but they did use money from the JFA to build out general-election infrastructure and pay DNC/state party bills before then.
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But those facts — and that context — won’t heal any of these wounds.
The pressure is on Democrats in Virginia’s gubernatorial race
To win Virginia’s gubernatorial race, Republican Ed Gillespie needs the stars to align, because he’s the underdog in the contest. But all of a sudden, some of those stars are starting to move into the right position for him.
Disunity inside the Democratic Party? Check.
Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder not endorsing Democrat Ralph Northam? Check.
Donald Trump leaving the country on an overseas trip? Check.
Make no mistake: Northam is the favored candidate. But given the stakes, Gillespie is playing with house money at the casino right now. A Democratic loss would be DEVASTATING for the party – given the political environment, Virginia’s history and the real chance Democrats have in 2018. A Republican loss, on the other hand, is expected. So the pressure’s on Democrats and Northam.
Sessions rejected campaign proposal for Trump to meet with Putin — and why that’s significant
NBC’s Ken Dilanian and Carol Lee: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions rejected a proposal by a junior campaign aide who offered to use his ‘Russian contacts’ to try to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News. The aide, George Papadopoulos, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and documents released Monday show he was in contact with Russians who offered him ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton — including thousands of emails.”
“This new revelation is significant because Sessions told Congress under oath in June that he had ‘no knowledge’ of any conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign about ‘any type of interference with any campaign’ by Russians.”
Our take: In a normal Washington, the attorney general would be out after this — especially since this isn’t the first time he’s been accused of misleading under oath. (Sen. Jeff Sessions would have already called for the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.) But in our politically paralyzed Washington — where the Trump White House and Senate Republicans are probably loathe to have confirmation hearings for another attorney general — Sessions might be able to survive if he begs for forgiveness.
Trump begins Asia trip carrying a weak hand
Finally, NBC’s Ali Vitali previews President Trump’s trip to Asia, which begins today. “The president heads overseas during a time of what some experts see as a decline of U.S. influence in the region and they suggest that it is unlikely that Trump will be returning home with any clear wins."
“While Trump battles on multiple fronts and faces low approval ratings at home, some of the world leaders he will encounter on his swing through Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines find themselves emboldened — and playing with a home turf advantage. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for instance, has been buoyed in recent weeks by his further consolidation of power and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's political party enjoyed a landslide election victory last week.”
Bottom line: Trump heads into this Asia trip carrying about as weak of a hand as we can remember for any president visiting Asia.