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It's Early, but the GOP Is Already in the Midterm Danger Zone

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
Nation Goes To The Polls In Contentious Presidential Election Between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump
A voter casts a ballot at a voting machine at a polling station at Cheyenne High School on Election Day on November 8, 2016.Ethan Miller / 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

It’s early, but the GOP is already in the midterm danger zone

There are two ways to look at the new national NBC/WSJ poll we released Sunday. The first way: President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey didn’t significantly change the president’s overall standing. Trump’s job-approval rating dipped one point from 40% in April to 39% now, which is well within the poll’s margin of error. And his fav/unfav score is 38% positive/52% negative — again basically unchanged from April.

But here’s the second way to view the poll: Trump’s 39% job rating is a screaming alarm bell for the Republican Party when you think about the midterms, which are still more than 500 days away. To put Trump’s 39% into perspective, George W. Bush didn’t reach that level in the NBC/WSJ poll until October 2005, so after the Social Security debacle, after the Iraq war turned south, and after Hurricane Katrina. And the GOP lost the House and Senate the following year. And Barack Obama NEVER reached 39% in our poll -- his lowest approval rating was 40% in September 2014, right before Democrats lost the Senate (after losing the House in 2010).

116 days in, and Trump’s standing resembles Bush 43’s in the fall of 2005 and Obama’s in 2014

Now a president’s job-approval rating isn’t the end all-be all for determining what happens in a midterm environment, although political scientists will tell you that it plays a considerable role. What’s more, there’s more than a year and a half between now and November 2018, so a lot can change. But if you see Trump’s 39% and think, “Hey, all things considered, it doesn’t look THAT bad for the president,” remember that we’re 116 days into Trump’s presidency, and he’s where George W. Bush was in October 2005 and about where Barack Obama was in September 2014. But this is also why the pressure is on Democrats to win at least one of two competitive special congressional elections coming up in the next month -- in Montana on May 25, and in Georgia on June 20.

Digging inside Trump’s job-approval rating

Health care — not Comey — is the bigger political problem for the GOP (at least right now)

Just 29% of Americans say they approve of President Donald Trump's decision to fire FBI Director Comey, while 38% disapprove, according to our new NBC/WSJ poll. Another 32% of respondents don't have enough to say on the matter. Yet among those who say they have read, seen or heard "a lot" about the firing, 53% say they disapprove, versus 33% who approve. But compare those numbers with these from the same poll: 48% say the health-care legislation that was recently passed by the House and supported by President Trump is a bad idea, versus 23% who call it a good idea. That 25-point gap between good idea and bad idea is larger than the NBC/WSJ poll ever found for Barack Obama's health-care plan. Back in December of 2013 -- following problems with the rollout of the HealthCare.Gov website — 50% had said the Obama plan was a bad idea, versus 34% who said it was a good idea (-16). This past February, however, 43% of Americans called the Obama plan a good idea, while 41% said it was bad (+2).

78% want an independent commission or special prosecutor to look at Russia probe

Here’s the final set of numbers from our NBC/WSJ poll to chew on: 46% of Americans, including 74% of Democrats, say they agree with the statement that Trump fired Comey to slow down the FBI investigation of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. That's compared with 38% of respondents, including nearly two-thirds of Republicans, who agree that firing was due to how Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. A combined 65% say they have a "great deal" of confidence or "some" confidence in the FBI's ability to conduct a fair and impartial investigation into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, versus a combined 40% who say the same of Congress. And asked if they prefer Congress or an independent commission or special prosecutor to investigate Russia's involvement, just 15% pick Congress, while 78% support an independent commission or special prosecutor.

On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham explained why he doesn’t see the need for an independent commission or special prosecutor, at least right now. “[I]t is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. So you don't need a special prosecutor. I trust Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to do this. If he gets to the point that he can't do it and it becomes a criminal investigation, we'll have a special prosecutor, An independent commission takes it outside of Congress.”

Graham: Under normal circumstances, Cornyn would be great pick to replace Comey. But these aren’t normal circumstances

Also on “Meet” yesterday, Graham explained why he believes that Trump picking a politician to replace Comey — and not a career FBI person — would be a mistake. “I think it's now time to pick someone who comes from within the ranks or has such a reputation that has no political background at all that can go into the job on day one. You know, who does the FBI director work for? To me, it's like appointing a judge. The president actually appoints the judge, but the judge is loyal to the law. The president appoints the FBI director, but the FBI director has to be loyal to the law. John Cornyn under normal circumstances would be a superb choice to be FBI director. But these are not normal circumstances.”

Congressional Republicans to Trump: Turn over those tapes, if you have them

Here’s more from Graham yesterday regarding Trump’s tweet suggesting that he might have taped his conversations with Comey: “If there are any tapes, they have to be turned over. You can't be cute about tapes. If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over. I doubt if there are. But we need to clear the air.” And here’ Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), per Reuters: “‘If there are recordings, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah told the ‘Fox News Sunday’ program it was ‘inevitable’ that they would be subpoenaed and the White House would have to release them.”

Trump’s Day

President Trump meets at the White House today with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi; White House Press Secretary holds his daily briefing at 1:30 pm ET.

Special Election Watch

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes how Jon Ossoff’s backers are getting a boost from the Comey affair in that GA-6 special… House Speaker Paul Ryan will appear with Karen Handel today… Another new poll shows that it’s a neck-and-neck race in that GA-6 race… And in the Montana special, the Billings Gazette is endorsing Republican Greg Gianforte.