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Evidence Mounts for Trump's Meddling in Russia Probe. But Is It Obstruction?

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.
Image: President Trump Hosts The Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers And First Responders Reception At The White House
U.S. President Donald Trump, center, shakes hands with James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House on January 22, 2017 in Washington. FileAndrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

Evidence mounts for Trump’s meddling in Russia probe. But is it obstruction?

Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen these five different stories on President Trump’s actions in the federal probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election:

  • Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, whose agency is investigating whether the president’s 2016 campaign might have had contacts with Russian entities.
  • After the White House initially said Comey’s ouster was due to his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt: “When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”
  • The New York Times reported that, on Feb. 14, Comey met with Trump, where the president told the FBI director: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting [Michael] Flynn go,” Trump said, per a memo Comey wrote about the meeting. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
  • The New York Times also reported that Trump, meeting on May 10 with Russian officials in the Oval Office, gave this account for his firing of Comey, according to a document summarizing the meeting. “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
  • And then this week, the Washington Post reported — later confirmed by NBC News — that Trump asked two top intelligence officials in March to say publicly that they saw no evidence the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election.

Any one of these headlines above would be politically problematic for a White House. But if you add them all up, there’s a strong case that the president and his White House were interfering with an ongoing federal investigation. Now is that obstruction of justice? George Washington University Law professor Jonathan Turley argues that it’s likely not — because that would involve someone acting with the intent of securing an unlawful benefit for yourself or someone else.

“Contacts and interactions” between Russia and the Trump campaign

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill yesterday, former Obama CIA chief John Brennan was asked if there was collusion or coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian. Here was his answer: “I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals and it raised questions in my mind, again, whether or not the Russians were able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”

The Gowdy Defense: But did Trump himself have contacts with Russia during the campaign?

If you want to see how Team Trump is drawing up a defense here — by walling off Trump from his 2016 campaign — here’s your sneak peak from Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-SC) line of questioning yesterday:

GOWDY: Did you see evidence of collusion, coordination, conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russian state actors?BRENNAN: I saw information and intelligence that was worthy of investigation by the Bureau to determine whether or not such cooperation or conclusion (sic) was taking place.GOWDY: That doesn't help us a lot. What was the nature of the information?BRENNAN: As I said, Mr. Gowdy, I think this committee now has access to the type of information that I'm alluding to here. It's classified and I'm happy to talk about it in classified session.GOWDY: And that would've been directly between the candidate and Russian state actors?BRENNAN: That's not what I said. I'm not going to talk to any individuals...GOWDY: But -- but that was — but that was my question, and — and — and you answered it. You didn't answer it that way.BRENNAN: I — no, I responded to your query. I'm not going to respond to particular elements of your question because I think it would be inappropriate for me to do so here.

Note: Gowdy’s questions to Brennan were about whether Trump himself had contact with Russian actors. Don’t be surprised if that ultimately becomes the Trump defense. Indeed, here is what the president said at his news conference last week: “There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself — and the Russians, zero.” (The emphasis is ours.)

Trump to Duterte: “You are doing an amazing job”

“In a phone call from the White House late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump heaped praise on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, one of the world’s most murderous heads of state, for doing what Trump called an ‘unbelievable job’ in his war on drugs,” The Intercept writes. “‘You are a good man,’ Trump told Duterte, according to an official transcript of the April 29 call produced by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and obtained by The Intercept. ‘Keep up the good work,’ Trump told Duterte. ‘You are doing an amazing job.’”

Trump meets the Pope

“Donald Trump met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday — the latest in a string of high-level meetings at sites sacred to the world's three great monotheistic religions,” per NBC News. “The president smiled broadly beside the pontiff, who appeared subdued and stone-faced before their 30-minute private conversation. However, Francis' mood lightened considerably during their gift exchange. According to the Associated Press, Trump told the pope that he ‘won't forget what you said.’”

It’s CBO Day — and there’s some drama over the numbers

NBC’s Benjy Sarlin: “House Republicans passed their health care bill in early May. Now, they get to find out what's in it,” including how many are insured/not insured (an earlier version concluded that 24 million more Americans wouldn’t have insurance under the legislation).

But here’s the drama: “House Republicans might have to revisit the bill and vote a second time on changes before the Senate can take it up. The reason for this gets into arcane procedure. Republicans are trying to advance their bill through the budget ‘reconciliation’ process, which allows them to pass legislation with a simple majority in the Senate — meaning, they wouldn't need any Democratic votes. But there are rules tied to reconciliation, and one of them is that any legislation passed this way has to reduce the deficit." While GOP leaders are confident that the bill will decrease the deficit, Sarlin writes, there's a "plausible" case the revised bill increases the deficit.

What it tells us when a president is out of the country when his White House releases its budget

By the way, how do we know the Trump White House didn’t really care much about its budget rollout yesterday? Because the president himself is thousands of miles away from Washington. Per budget expert Stan Collender, since the passage of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, no president before Trump had been outside the country when the White House released its first budget proposal, NBC’s Kailani Koenig notes.

Upcoming Montana race is more about health care and guns than Russia and Trump

The special congressional election in Montana takes place tomorrow, and here’s your reminder that it’s shaping up more to be a generic Democrat-vs.-generic Republican contest — rather than race over Trump and Russia.

The ads from Republican Greg Gianforte:

  • Opponent Rob Quist “wants to raise our taxes to pay for government takeover of health care.”
  • "DC insiders have rigged the system to cash in at your expense… I’m Greg Gianforte, and I want to drain the swamp.
  • You can count on me to fight back against Washington, DC’s war on the west. I’ll stand strong for the 2nd Amendment.”

The ads from Democrat Rob Quist:

  • “Greg Gianforte says he’s thankful for the new [GOP] health-care bill – the one that eliminates protections for pre-existing conditions and raises premiums on every Montanan who has them.”
  • “I’m Rob Quist, and I approve this message because there’s enough millionaires in Washington, and I’ll be a voice for the rest of us.”
  • “Long before Greg Gianforte showed up here from New Jersey, this old rifle and I were here in Montana – just like my father before me.”