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 — Over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday, President Trump told the New York Times — 15 different times — that there was “no collusion” between his 2016 campaign and the Russians. But just two days later, the Times popped this story: The Australians notified the U.S. government, in July 2016, that the Trump campaign knew the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton and her campaign.
During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
About three weeks earlier, Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.
Exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.
By our count, the Papadopoulos story, which the Mueller probe initially unearthed, is at least the THIRD instance of the Trump campaign or his family having interactions with Russians or WikiLeaks. To recap:
Donald Trump Jr: “If it’s what you say, I love it”
After publicist Rob Goldstone emailed Donald Trump Jr. saying that the Russian government has dirt on Hillary Clinton ("This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump"), Trump Jr. responded, "Thanks Rob I appreciate that. I am on the road at the moment but perhaps I just speak to Emin first. Seems we have some time and if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer." Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort eventually met with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya on June 9, 2016.
WikiLeaks’ direct messages with Trump Jr
"Hiya, it'd be great if you guys could comment on/push this story,” WikiLeaks suggested to the president’s son, per the Atlantic. "Strongly suggest your dad tweets this link if he mentions us,” said in another direct message with Trump Jr. And in another: "Hi Don if your father ‘loses’ we think it is much more interesting if he DOES NOT conceed [sic] and spends time CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred – as he has implied that he might do.'"
“They have thousands of emails” on Hillary Clinton
“On or about April 26, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met [a professor with connections to Russia] for breakfast at a London hotel,” said the statement of offense in Papadopoulos’ guilty plea for lying to the FBI. “During this meeting, the Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that on that trip he (the Professor) learned that the Russians had obtained ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS, as defendant PAPADOPOULOS later described to the FBI, that ‘They [the Russians] have dirt on her’; ‘the Russians had emails of Clinton’; "they have thousands of emails.’”
And, of course, we know that Trump aggressively campaigned on the WikiLeaks dump of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails. "This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove," Trump said on Oct. 31, 2016. "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks," he says from Ohio on Nov. 4, 2016.
Cooperation without collusion is still cooperation. And at the very least from the evidence above, it sure looks like they were cooperating with the Russians and their intermediaries. And from what we know, the Trump campaign never alerted the FBI about the interactions above. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias tweeted, “The Australian ambassador when made aware of a Russian intelligence operation aimed at the United States alerted the authorities. The Trump campaign ... did not do that.”
January 2018 could be a make-or-break month for Trump
As former Trump adviser Steve Bannon told Axios, this January is shaping up to be a make-or-break month for Trump’s presidency. "It's trade, DACA, and the wall — but it's much beyond that," Bannon said. "This is the run-up, the last 20 days before the first anniversary of his inauguration, and it's all coming to a head: a spending bill of epic proportions, the test of a veto or a government shutdown, the China confrontation and Korea, all the immigration issues, infrastructure funding and welfare reform. All on the table, with their direction uncertain."
As we wrote late last month, here are the top stories we’re watching at the beginning of 2018:
- The spending-bill battle: On Dec. 21, Congress passed a temporary spending bill to keep the government open through Jan. 19. And so it’s likely that we’ll finally see that showdown over President Trump’s border wall, the fate of the DACA program and long-term funding for CHIP, the children’s health-care program. Remember, Republicans will need 60 votes to pass this in the Senate, so Democrats have leverage in this fight.
- Keeping an eye on the generic ballot: Democrats ended 2017 with double-digit leads on the generic ballots in several polls, including the NBC/WSJ survey — all pointing to a building wave for the 2018 midterms. Can Democrats sustain that advantage? Or can Republicans begin to close the gap?
- The 2018 primaries begin: In March, Texas (March 6) and Illinois (March 20) hold their primaries – the first of the midterms. However, those contests will come after the GOP and Democratic primaries in AZ-8 on Feb. 27 to replace Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who resigned from Congress after allegations of sexual harassment.
- Another special election: March 13 brings us the special congressional election in Pennsylvania to replace Rep. Tim Murphy, who also stepped down from Congress this past year. This district is in Trump Country — the president won it 58 percent to 38 percent in 2016 — but as Alabama proved, anything is now possible.
- The sexual harassment story isn’t going away: In the month of December alone, five members of Congress (John Conyers, Al Franken, Franks, Blake Farenthold and Ruben Kihuen) either resigned or announced they won’t be running for re-election. And we have a strong feeling they won’t be the last ones.
- The Russia investigation isn’t going away, either: In the last two months, four members of Trump’s team — Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and Papadopoulos — either were indicted or pleaded guilty. Who’s next?
- Watching the economy: And last but not least, will the economy — 4.1 percent unemployment rate, 228,000 jobs created last month, 3.2 percent GDP last quarter — keep humming? Remember, the Trump/GOP tax plan depends on it.
Keep an eye on China
And as Steve Bannon alluded to above, there’s a potential conflict brewing between the Trump administration and China. “President Donald Trump suggested [last week] that he may act on his numerous threats against China following reports of the Asian giant providing oil to North Korea. ‘If they don't help us with North Korea, then I can do what I've always said I want to do,’ he told The New York Times,” per CNBC. “All year, Trump has repeatedly warned Beijing of punitive tariffs that will come if China continues with what Washington deems unfair trade practices. ‘They have to help us much more," he told the Times.’”
And this comes as China is extending its influence across the globe. The New Yorker: “In a speech to Communist Party officials last January 20th, Major General Jin Yinan, a strategist at China’s National Defense University, celebrated America’s pullout from the [TPP] trade deal. ‘We are quiet about it,’ he said. ‘We repeatedly state that Trump “harms China.” We want to keep it that way. In fact, he has given China a huge gift. That is the American withdrawal from T.P.P.” Jin, whose remarks later circulated, told his audience, ‘As the U.S. retreats globally, China shows up.’”
More from the New Yorker: “For years, China’s leaders predicted that a time would come—perhaps midway through this century — when it could project its own values abroad. In the age of ‘America First,’ that time has come far sooner than expected.”
Death toll reaches 20 in Iran
And speaking of keeping an eye on foreign countries, here’s NBC News on what’s going on in Iran: “The most significant protests in eight years are rocking Iran, with state media reporting Tuesday that the death toll from clashes between demonstrators and security forces had reached at least 20. Offering his first comments during the six days of unrest, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday accused the "enemies of Iran" of meddling in the country's affairs.”
This morning, President Trump tweeted, “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their “pockets.” The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”