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First Read: Putin Becomes the Ultimate Test of GOP Loyalty to Trump

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow, December 20, 2012.MAXIM SHEMETOV / Reuters

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Putin has become the ultimate test of GOP loyalty to Trump

A day after Donald Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin at the NBC/MSNBC Commander-in-Chief Forum, the Trump campaign doubled down on Putin. “I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” running mate Mike Pence told CNN on Thursday, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard. But compare that with what House Speaker Paul Ryan said when asked about Trump’s comments on Putin from Wednesday night. “Vladimir Putin is an aggressor that does not share our interests. Vladimir Putin is violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. It's certainly appears he is conducting in-state sponsored attacks on what appears to be our political system,” Ryan said. “That is not acting in our interests and that is an adversarial stance and he is acting like an adversary.” So maybe more than any issue right now, Putin has become the ultimate test of GOP loyalty to Trump. Do you agree or disagree with Trump on Putin? That question will separate the ardent Trump supporters from the Republicans who aren’t.

The curious case of the Trump campaign doubling down on Putin

One more point here: What’s amazing about the Trump campaign’s embrace of Putin, even from Pence, is that Putin is one of the more reviled figures among American voters. Here are the fav/unfav ratings from our May 2016 NBC/WSJ poll:

  • Barack Obama: 49% positive, 41% negative (+8)
  • Bernie Sanders: 43% positive, 36% negative (+7)
  • Paul Ryan: 29% positive, 29% negative (even)
  • Democratic Party: 38% positive, 41% negative (-3)
  • Hillary Clinton: 34% positive, 54% negative (-20)
  • Republican Party: 24% positive, 49% negative (-25)
  • Donald Trump: 29% positive, 58% negative (-29)
  • Vladimir Putin: 8% positive, 59% negative (-51)

A timeline of Trump’s statements on the Iraq war

Campaigning yesterday at an education event in Cleveland, Trump repeated his false claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the outset. “I opposed going in, and I did oppose it, despite the media saying, “No, yes, no” I opposed going in. But here is a timeline of Trump’s statements on Iraq -- combined with when a little-known Barack Obama said he opposed the war:

  • Sept. 2002: Are you for invading Iraq? “Yeah, I guess so,” Trump responded to Howard Stern, as Buzzfeed first reported. “I wish the first time it was done correctly.”
  • Oct. 2002: “I don’t oppose all wars,” Barack Obama said at an anti-war rally in Chicago. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
  • Jan. 2003: Trump: "Well, [George W. Bush] has either got to do something or not do something, perhaps, because perhaps shouldn't be doing it yet and perhaps we should be waiting for the United Nations, you know," Trump said. "He's under a lot of pressure. I think he's doing a very good job. But, of course, if you look at the polls, a lot of people are getting a little tired. I think the Iraqi situation is a problem. And I think the economy is a much bigger problem as far as the president is concerned." (Interview with Fox's Neil Cavuto, per PolitiFact)
  • March 2003: Iraq war begins.
  • August 2004: Trump: “Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we're in. I would never have handled it that way. Does anybody really believe that Iraq is going to be a wonderful democracy where people are going to run down to the voting box and gently put in their ballot and the winner is happily going to step up to lead the county? C'mon. (Interview with Esquire magazine)

To wrap up all of these statements, Trump said -- in Jan. 2003, two months before the war started -- that George W. Bush should focus more on the economy than Iraq, but didn’t out and out oppose the war. Only in August 2004 -- a year and a half after the Iraq war began and in the middle of a presidential contest almost all about the war -- did Trump call it a “mess.”

The Washington Post’s editorial board says “enough” on Clinton’s emails

There is no doubt that the email story involving Hillary Clinton — which began back in early 2015 -- has damaged her. But the Clinton campaign is getting some good news from a Washington Post editorial saying it’s time to stop fixating on the emails, especially after the FBI said there wasn’t evidence of criminal wrongdoing. “Ms. Clinton is hardly blameless. She treated the public’s interest in sound record-keeping cavalierly,” the Post writes. “A small amount of classified material also moved across her private server. But it was not obviously marked as such, and there is still no evidence that national security was harmed. Ms. Clinton has also admitted that using the personal server was a mistake. The story has vastly exceeded the boundaries of the facts.” Meanwhile, the Times has this story: “A computer specialist who deleted Hillary Clinton’s emails despite orders from Congress to preserve them was given immunity by the Justice Department during its investigation into her personal email account, according to a law enforcement official and others briefed on the investigation.”

On the trail

This morning, Hillary Clinton holds a meeting with national-security experts in New York City… Donald Trump has a rally in Pensacola, FL at 8:00 pm ET… Tim Kaine stumps in Norfolk, VA… Bill Clinton campaigns in Pittsburgh, while Elizabeth Warren hits Philadelphia.

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