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.
Jeff Flake Takes On Trump — and Puts His Political Future on the Line
There’s no shortage of Republican strategists and media types in Washington who have been willing to criticize President Donald Trump, but it’s something else entirely to hear a searing indictment of the president and his party from an elected official who depends on a conservative base to keep his job.
In his new book, Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake sets aside the kind of muted complaints and pleas for civility that we’ve heard to date from GOP lawmakers, instead lambasting Trump directly as volatile and unprincipled. What’s more, Flake accuses his fellow Republicans — particularly those in leadership — of whistling past the graveyard as Trump has hollowed out the party.
Here are just a few key passages from the book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” via NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard:
- On Trump’s unpredictability: “[V]olatile unpredictability is not a virtue. We have quite enough volatile actors to deal with internationally as it is without becoming one of them.”
- On Trump’s penchant for conflict: “Far from conservative, the president’s comportment was rather a study in the importance of conflict in reality television — that once you introduce conflict, you cannot de-escalate conflict. You must continually escalate.”
- On the party’s need for inclusiveness: “We knew all of this before the last election, but we quickly set it aside for the sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery.”
- On his fellow conservatives: “That unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.”
It’s not all that surprising that Flake is the GOP voice speaking out against Trump in this way. He wasn’t shy during the campaign about his refusal to endorse Trump, and the president has even floated the idea of bankrolling a primary campaign against him.
But it is striking that the messenger isn’t a long-established statesman (remember when Mitt Romney delivered his scathing rebuke of Trump during the campaign?) or a lawmaker with retirement on the horizon and nothing to lose politically.
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Flake, a relatively young conservative who’s up for reelection in a competitive state, is putting his political future on the line here just six months into Trump’s tenure.
Flake’s critique is the next big test for Trump and the GOP
Our biggest question about Flake’s takedown, though, is what comes next? Trump already had bad blood with the Arizona lawmaker, so how does the president react?
It will be a real test of incoming Chief of Staff John Kelly’s sway if he can keep Trump from bashing Flake publicly and forcing his fellow Republicans to defend their colleague.
And how do GOP congressional leaders respond to Flake’s charge that they turned a blind eye to Trump’s behavior and the “demagoguery” stewing within their own party?
Trump himself drafted his son’s misleading statement about the Russia meeting
The Washington Post scooped last night that, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary, Trump himself personally dictated his son’s misleading statement about his June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer.
From the Post’s report: “The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged. But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed. Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had 'primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children' when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations.”
That’s a direct contraction of what Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow told one of us on July 16.
CHUCK TODD: You were very careful to say the president didn’t draft the statement. That isn’t what I asked. Did the president get a heads up on the statement? Did he sign off on the statement? Was he asked to read the statement before it was given to the New York Times on Air Force One?JAY SEKULOW: No, I mean, I can’t say whether the president was told the statement was going to be coming from his son on that. I didn’t have that conversation and let me say this — but I do want to be clear — that the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement. It came from Donald Trump Jr. So that’s what I can tell you because that’s what we know. And Donald Trump Jr. has said the same thing. That it was, in fact, from him and I believe it was his lawyer was in consultation — I’m sure his lawyer was in consultation.
By the way, Sekulow’s new response to the Washington Post story no longer explicitly denies that Trump himself drafted the response.
So why lie about something like this? This kind of obvious contradiction only creates more suspicion, and misleading about the fallout from the meeting makes a bad situation seem even worse for the administration.
Kelly uses his honeymoon wisely
Well, if you needed a sign that incoming Chief of Staff John Kelly would assert himself in his new role, you got it yesterday at around 2:35pm ET, when news first broke of Anthony Scaramucci’s ouster as White House communications director just 10 days after his appointment to the job was announced.
Scaramucci’s hire had all the hallmarks of a summer fling — a regrettable decision, made over the objections of allies, that quickly turned from freewheeling to troubling. Forcing him out was a good use of Kelly’s early political capital — Scaramucci had to be ousted for Kelly to have a chance to start righting the ship.
And/but, don’t miss the wording that Ivanka Trump used in her tweet about working “alongside” Kelly. “Looking forward to serving alongside John Kelly as we work for the American people,” she tweeted yesterday. Hmmm.
Tester gets a high-profile challenger and the AP reports Barletta is poised to run against Casey: Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale is officially in the race against Sen. Jon Tester. Rosendale enters the race as a high-profile challenger to one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats. The state voted for Trump by more than a 20 point margin, and the president’s approval rating there remains one of the highest in the country at 56 percent, per Gallup. And the AP is reporting that Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Lou Barletta — an early Trump supporter — is preparing to run against Democrat Bob Casey.
Trump holds a small business event at the White House at 3pm ET.