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The Koch network's top brass distance themselves from Trump

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.
Image: Charles Koch speaks at the Seminar Network Winter Meeting 2018
Charles Koch speaks at the Seminar Network Winter Meeting 2018.Seminar Network

WASHINGTON — Ninety-nine days until the all-important midterm elections, Republican lawmakers and outside groups are beginning to distance themselves from President Trump — in ways both small and big. The latest to break away: the Koch Brothers.

“Top leaders of the conservative Koch political network, frustrated with the direction of the Republican Party, are attempting to rebrand the organization by vowing to be less partisan and work with elected officials across the political spectrum to advance their policy priorities,” NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell writes. “In a rare interview with reporters, a reflective Charles Koch spoke about ‘mistakes’ he and his network have made in the past, alluding to the strictly partisan playbook that the organization has deployed for more than a decade.”

More: “When asked if he blames the president for divisiveness, Koch said, ‘I’m into hating the sin not the sinner.’ But his top brass were more direct. ‘The divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage,’ Brian Hooks, co-chair of the Seminar Network, told reporters. ‘And so that’s why we say there’s a lack of leadership and there’s an opportunity for this network to step up and express a positive vision on the issues to help people improve their lives.’”

“‘You see this on trade,’ Hook said. ‘In order to get to a good place on the debate, you have to convince the American people that trade is bad. You see it on immigration, in order to get to a good policy," Hooks said, "You have to convince people that immigrants are bad. That’s not a sustainable tactic or achieving good policy.’”

Two things can be true: More Republican voters than ever approve of Trump’s job performance, according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll. And on a variety of issues — tariffs, immigration, Trump’s dealings with Russia — we are seeing Republican lawmakers breaking from the president on key policies and issues. And that’s no small thing.

Of course, in the summer and fall of 2016, Republicans were busy distancing themselves from Trump (over the “Access Hollywood” video, the attacks on the Khan family, the attacks on Judge Curiel). And it all worked out for Trump and the GOP.

But you always want to be more unified — rather than less unified — heading into an election.

Trump lashes out at Mueller probe, calling it “an illegal scam” (it is not)

On Friday, we asked this question pegged to Trump’s meeting that day on election security: How seriously did he take the report that Russia tried to hack Claire McCaskill’s Senate campaign? Well, consider what Trump tweeted about over the weekend (Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation) and what he didn’t (that report that Russia tried to hack McCaskill’s campaign):

“There is No Collusion! The Robert Mueller Rigged Witch Hunt, headed now by 17 (increased from 13, including an Obama White House lawyer) Angry Democrats, was started by a fraudulent Dossier, paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC. Therefore, the Witch Hunt is an illegal Scam!”

“Is Robert Mueller ever going to release his conflicts of interest with respect to President Trump, including the fact that we had a very nasty & contentious business relationship, I turned him down to head the FBI (one day before appointment as S.C.) & Comey is his close friend..”

“...Also, why is Mueller only appointing Angry Dems, some of whom have worked for Crooked Hillary, others, including himself, have worked for Obama....And why isn’t Mueller looking at all of the criminal activity & real Russian Collusion on the Democrats side-Podesta, Dossier?”

“Illegal scam”? An investigation headed by Democrats? (In fact, Mueller is a Republican, and so is the Trump administration official who oversees him, Rod Rosenstein.) A “very nasty & contentious business relationship”? (We assume Trump is talking about the fact that Mueller left Trump’s D.C.-area golf club in 2011? Rosenstein has disputed claims of any conflict of interest by Mueller.)

For the record, Mueller’s probe has resulted in multiple indictments (including of Russian intelligence officials who were charged with interfering in the 2016 presidential election), multiple guilty pleas (for Trump aides like Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos) and jail time (for his campaign chairman Paul Manafort). The probe also was started NOT by the dossier but by Papadopoulos telling a diplomat, in the spring of 2016, that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

NBC News has reached out to Mueller’s office for comment, but there has been no reply at this time.

Trump also calls for government shutdown…

Also over the weekend, the president of the United States called for a government shutdown before the midterm elections.

“I would be willing to ‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!” he said.

As budget expert Stan Collender has written, a government shutdown is very possible, especially given how divided House Republicans are right now. “Paul Ryan (R-WI) is a lame duck speaker who no longer seems to care about supporting Donald Trump or Trump’s legislative agenda... There are three candidates to replace Ryan who are openly campaigning for the job and dividing the GOP caucus. This competition will likely get worse when the House reconvenes... This is almost a textbook definition of political and legislative chaos.”

... Just as the House goes on a month-long recess

And oh, by the way, the House of Representatives is going on recess for the next month. “Members of Congress left Washington Thursday to go on a monthlong recess without tackling some of the biggest issues on the agenda, including legislation addressing immigration and family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, Russia-related measures and a second tax bill,” per NBC’s Rebecca Shabad. “For its part, the Senate is planning to stay in session for most of August, with just a weeklong recess scheduled next week. But with House lawmakers back in their districts, there's not much senators can accomplish beyond confirming more of President Donald Trump's judicial nominees.”

On Congress’ to-do list: keep the government open, oversee how the Trump administration is (or isn’t) reunifying migrant families and possibly another stab at tax reform.

NBC News: Impatient Trump pushes for peace talks in Afghanistan

“President Donald Trump’s impatience with the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan has prompted U.S. diplomats and commanders to gamble on a bid to kick-start peace negotiations, including holding direct talks with the Taliban, current and former U.S. officials told NBC News.”

More: “The Taliban has so far welcomed the American overtures and plan to meet again soon with U.S. officials after the latest session about a week ago in Qatar, where the insurgents operate a political office, former U.S. diplomats and Taliban sources said. The indirect U.S.-Taliban talks were first reported by NBC News on July 20. The outreach represents the most serious diplomatic effort to end the war in five years but comes at a time when the Taliban is in a position of relative strength on the battlefield, firmly entrenched in rural districts with U.S.-backed Afghan forces unable to turn the tide despite ramped-up American bombing.”

And: “Afghan government officials remain concerned that the U.S. could appear desperate for a peace settlement, allowing the Taliban to squeeze concessions from a superpower fatigued with a grinding war that has settled into a stalemate. ‘There’s a danger that the Taliban will smell weakness,’ one foreign diplomat told NBC News.”

We are now 99 days out until the midterms

With 99 days to go until Election Day 2018, here are some midterm stories that piqued our interest over the weekend:

A Republican group began deploying its ground game: “Thousands of Republican volunteers were deployed this weekend in a ‘Super Saturday’ push to protect their House majority — knocking on doors, handing out flyers, and calling voters,” per NBC’s Shaquille Brewster.

Dem candidate calls out GOP opponent’s love of “Bigfoot erotica”: And you can’t make it up: “The Democratic challenger in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, Leslie Cockburn called out her opponent, GOP nominee Denver Riggleman, for his love of Bigfoot erotica.”