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 — To make sense of former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea on Friday (as well as President Trump’s reaction to it over the weekend), here’s a handy timeline:
Dec. 22, 2016: After a conversation with a very senior member of Trump’s transition team (later identified as Jared Kushner), Flynn asked Russia’s ambassador to delay a vote on pending UN Security Council resolution on Israel.Dec. 29, 2016: Obama issued sanctions on Russia for its efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.Dec. 29, 2016: After a call with a senior transition team official (later identified as KT McFarland), Flynn asked Russia’s ambassador to refrain from escalating the situation regarding the U.S. sanctions on Russia.Dec. 30, 2016: Trump tweeted about Russia’s reaction to the U.S. sanctions: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”Jan. 15, 2017: Vice President Mike Pence told CBS about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador, “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose a censure against Russia.”Jan. 24: Flynn made his false statements to the FBI about his Dec. 22 and Dec. 29 interactions with the Russian government.Jan. 26: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the Trump White House that Flynn has been compromised.Jan. 27: In a private one-on-one dinner, President Trump appeared to ask FBI Director James Comey for his loyalty. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” Comey recalled.Jan. 30: Trump fired Yates for not defending his travel ban.Feb. 13: Flynn resigned just after the Washington Post first reported that the Justice Department had informed the White House that Flynn could be subject to blackmail.Feb. 14: In an Oval Office meeting, Trump told Comey, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” Trump adds, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot. I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” Comey recalled.Feb. 16: In news conference, Trump defended Flynn: “Because when I looked at the information, I said, “I don’t think he did anything wrong; if anything, he did something right.” He was coming into office. He looked at the information. He said, “Huh, that’s fine.” That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to — he didn’t just call Russia. He called and spoke to both ways, I think there were 30-some-odd countries. He’s doing the job.”
To recap: Flynn spoke to Russia’s ambassador about a UN vote and sanctions against Russia, and Flynn lied to the FBI about the conversations. Flynn didn’t act alone (his conversations came after discussions with Kushner and McFarland). And the day after Flynn resigned, Trump talked to Comey about “letting this go.”
Then, on Saturday, Trump tweeted this: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!” Why this is significant: It’s an admission that he KNEW Flynn lied to the FBI, and he KNEW THAT when he had his conversations with Comey.
"You tweet and comment regarding ongoing criminal investigations at your own peril. I would be careful if I were you, Mr. President. I would watch this," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on CBS. Added Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on “Meet the Press” yesterday: "I think what we're beginning to see is the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice."
After the tweet, Trump lawyer John Dowd said he composed the tweet for Trump, and he later acknowledged to NBC’s Kristen Welker that it was the only tweet he ever composed for the president. Our question: Will Dowd admit he wrote that tweet under oath?
Trump’s lawyer: A president can’t obstruct justice
Appearing to respond to Feinstein’s assertion about the beginnings of “a case of obstruction of justice,” Dowd is now telling Axios that a president of the United States can’t obstruct justice. The "President cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case," Dowd said.
But if that’s the case, then why did the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon charge him with obstructing justice? (Here’s the very beginning of those articles of impeachment (emphasis is ours): “In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice, in that…”
On NPR, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara responded to Dowd’s assertion. “He's the president's defense lawyer, and he has to say things in the press and the media that defend the president. I have a lot of experience with John Dowd ... in cases before my office, and he said then – as he's saying now – a lot of incorrect, mistaken and on ocassion ludicrous things. So I wouldn't put a lot of stock into it.”
Trump gives Roy Moore a full-throated endorsement in Alabama’s Senate race
When the going gets tough for Trump, he becomes more defiant. And that’s maybe the best way to view his tweet this morning on Alabama’s upcoming Senate contest.
“Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama. We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!”
And Trump’s full-throated endorsement of Moore comes after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to walk back his previous criticism of the GOP candidate. "I'm going to let the people of Alabama make the call," McConnell told ABC, per Politico. "The ethics committee will have to consider the matters that have been litigated in the campaign should that particular candidate win."
Billy Bush: Yes, Trump said those words in that “Access Hollywood” tape
“President Trump is currently indulging in some revisionist history, reportedly telling allies, including at least one United States senator, that the voice on the tape is not his. This has hit a raw nerve in me,” Billy Bush writes in the New York Times.
He continues, “I can only imagine how it has reopened the wounds of the women who came forward with their stories about him, and did not receive enough attention. This country is currently trying to reconcile itself to years of power abuse and sexual misconduct. Its leader is wantonly poking the bear.”
And he concludes his piece with this: “Today is about reckoning and reawakening, and I hope it reaches all the guys on the [“Access Hollywood”] bus.”
Trump moves to block Mitt Romney from the Senate
President Trump today heads to Utah, where he’s expected to announce plans “to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments,” NBC’s Geoff Bennett, Tim Stelloh and Steve Patterson report.
But there’s another Trump-Utah political drama playing out. Politico: “Donald Trump is going all out to persuade seven-term Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to seek reelection — a push aimed in no small part at keeping the president’s longtime nemesis, Mitt Romney, out of the Senate.”
“Romney has been preparing to run for Hatch’s seat on the long-held assumption that the 83-year-old would retire. Yet Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator in history, is now refusing to rule out another campaign — a circumstance Romney’s infuriated inner circle blames squarely on the president. Their suspicions are warranted: Trump has sounded off to friends about how he doesn't like the idea of a Senator Romney."