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How Trump turned a minor election into a major referendum on himself

The Pennsylvania special election really shouldn't be a big deal, but Trump has injected himself into the race in a huge way.
Image: President Trump addresses CPAC Conference in Maryland
President Donald Trump speaks at the 45th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland on Feb. 23, 2018.Chris Cleponis / EPA pool

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 — Despite the millions spent on the race, the high-profile visits and all the national attention, there’s a good case to make that the outcome of Tuesday’s special congressional election in Pennsylvania is highly overrated.

For one thing, with the state’s new congressional map, this particular district won’t even exist in its current form in November, and the two candidates in the race (Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone) are expected to eventually run in different districts. Also, if you’re trying to gauge the current political environment, is there a significant difference to Lamb winning or losing by 2-3 points in a district President Trump carried by 20 points in 2016?

But if there’s reason to pay attention to the outcome on Tuesday, it’s this: Trump has put his office’s prestige on the line. In addition to the president holding a rally with Saccone on Saturday, the Washington Post suggested last week that Trump’s move on tariffs is aimed at the voters in PA-18. “In recent weeks, he has been told by associates that voters in places such as Pennsylvania’s 18th District are looking for more to be done by the administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations,” the Post wrote. “The president has noted that the Republican in the race is struggling in a district where he won by a large margin, those people said.”

So the race — despite the new map and already-evident political winds – matters because it matters to President Trump. A win, therefore, would allow Trump to crow that the GOP can still win in Trump Country. But a loss would be devastating for him: After all the money, the campaigning and the tariff timing, to have a Republican lose in a district Trump carried by 20 points would suggest there’s not more the president can do to help GOP candidates, even in Trump Country.

In sum, Tuesday’s PA-18 is a perfect microcosm of much of the Trump Era: So much attention and such high stakes on something that didn’t have to be this big – and in large part because Trump made it so.

It is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying … Trump.

The Trump vs. Biden proxy fight

There’s also another way to view Tuesday’s PA-18 race: It’s turned into a proxy fight between Trump and Joe Biden. Here was the former vice president campaigning for Lamb last Tuesday. “He’ll never leave anybody behind,” Biden said of Lamb, per Roll Call. “Go out and make sure he wins. It will set a trend in the nation. It will change things.”

And as we mentioned above, Trump is headlining a rally for Saccone on Saturday.

Politico: GOP is already trashing Saccone

Perhaps to downplay expectations or to have an excuse ready if they lose, Republicans are criticizing their candidate in PA-18, according to Politico. “In interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, senior House Republicans and top party strategists, Saccone was nearly universally panned as a deeply underwhelming candidate who leaned excessively on the national party to execute a massive, multimillion-dollar rescue effort. It was complete with visits from the president, vice president and several Cabinet members.”

More from Politico: “The concerns go all the way to the White House. Trump appeared with Saccone at an event in January, and in the weeks that followed he described the candidate as less than ideal, according to three people who’ve spoken with him. In February, Trump planned to attend a fundraiser with Saccone, but in the days leading up to the event, the president’s aides privately grew fearful that Saccone wouldn’t be able to draw a sufficient number of donors to the event. (The fundraiser was ultimately canceled because of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.)”

New developments in Russia story only raise more questions

More than a year into the Russia scandal, there’s been one obvious truth: Every development or new story has opened new doors instead of closing them. The latest examples:

The Washington Post: “Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin — apparently contradicting statements made to lawmakers by one of its participants, according to people familiar with the matter. In January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, met with a Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned discussion of U.S.-Russia relations.”

The New York Times: “The special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters. In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed, the people said.”

The questions to ask: So why was the incoming Trump administration looking for back-channel communications with the Russians? (Remember, this isn’t the first example of Team Trump looking for ways to communicate with the Russians before Trump took office.)

And why is Trump so concerned about his aides’ interviews with Mueller?

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Trump lawyer tries to silence Stormy Daniels

“President Donald Trump's lawyer is trying to silence adult-film star Stormy Daniels, obtaining a secret restraining order in a private arbitration proceeding and warning that she will face penalties if she publicly discusses a relationship with the president,” NBC’s Sarah Fitzpatrick writes. “The new pressure on Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, comes a day after she filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles court alleging that a nondisclosure agreement she made to keep quiet about an ‘intimate’ relationship with Trump is invalid because he never signed it.”