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 — For those who thought the GOP’s tax law or Democrats’ message might be key parts of the 2018 midterm environment, the first days of the brand-new year have been an important reminder that 2018 will be all about — or mostly about — President Trump. Consider:
- On Tuesday, the president fired off his mine-is-bigger-than-yours tweet on the subject of nuclear weapons and North Korea.
- Also on Tuesday, Trump suggested jail for Clinton aide Huma Abedin and former FBI Director James Comey when neither has been charged with a crime.
- On Wednesday, we learned that a new tell-all book about the Trump White House has former White House strategist Steve Bannon accusing Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort of “treasonous” behavior for meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016 – an acknowledgment from the highest levels in Trump World that the Russia investigation isn’t phony or a witch hunt.
- The book, by Michael Wolff, also cites an email from unnamed White House aide that was said to reflect the view of top economic adviser Gary Cohn, the New York Times reports: “It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.”
- Then Trump flayed Bannon in a presidential statement unlike any other we’ve ever seen: "Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency," Trump said, per NBC’s Ali Vitali and Kristen Welker. "When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind."
- And then on top of it all Wednesday, a lawyer for Trump issued a cease-and-desist letter to Bannon, accusing the former White House strategist of defamation and breaking his confidentiality agreement.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Two words sum up the last two days, especially Wolff’s book and the reaction to it — HOT MESS. And despite all of the juicy back-and-forth between the Trump White House and Bannon, don’t forget the biggest news from the book: A top Trump figure is LEGITIMIZING the Russia probe. What’s more, you don’t send a cease-and-desist order to someone who you think is making it all up.
Sure, 2018 — like other election cycles — will include candidate stumbles, surprising poll numbers, showdowns on Capitol Hill, monthly jobs numbers and plenty of TV ads. But if the past year and the first days of 2018 are any indication, the cycle is going to be all about Trump.
Another reminder: The GOP is Trump’s party, not Steve Bannon’s
After Trump’s blistering statement on Bannon, Republicans – including conservatives who had won Bannon’s support — distanced themselves and quickly sided with the president.
Here was New York congressional candidate Michael Grimm, according to NBC’s Jonathan Allen: "I strongly denounce the comments by Steve Bannon as quoted by Michael Wolff," said Grimm, who seeking to retake his old seat in Staten Island. "They are baseless attacks against the president's family, beyond disturbing, and I fully support our commander in chief."
Here was a spokesman for Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward, per CNN: "Steve Bannon is only one of many high-profile endorsements Dr. Ward has received. Her focus remains on winning this race, which she is in a great position to do, and then helping President Trump advance an America First agenda."
And here was Patrick Morrisey’s campaign in the West Virginia Senate race: “Patrick Morrisey has been endorsed by many conservatives throughout West Virginia and America because of his strong conservative record. Attorney General Morrisey does not support these attacks on President Trump and his family,” Politico writes.
One exception was Danny Tarkanian in Nevada’s Senate race, who said he still welcomed Bannon’s support. “I supported the president before he was elected; I support him now, I will continue to support him after the primary, and most importantly I will support him after I am elected,” he said in a statement, per the Nevada Independent. “The same cannot be said about Mr. Heller. And if Mr. Bannon chooses to support me in our effort to repeal and replace Dean Heller with someone who will truly have the President’s back, I welcome his support.”
Bottom line: This is Donald Trump’s party — not Steve Bannon’s. And, for good and bad, the party’s fortunes are tied to the president. (Remember when they were basking in the glow of their tax victory? Now all of this…) Mitch McConnell and his allies are seeing this as an opportunity to bury Bannon and the politics he represents.
Bannon's and 'Breitbart-ism's' rough day
The New York Times’ Alex Burns makes a smart point about Bannon’s and “Breitbart-ism’s” day yesterday:
- The Trump White House punched Bannon with that statement;
- Mitt Romney looks like he’s on glide path to serving in the U.S. Senate;
- Doug Jones, not Roy Moore, got sworn into the U.S. Senate;
- And Trump’s voter fraud commission was abandoned (more on that below).
By the way, it’s worth keeping in mind that Bannon remains a bogeyman for the left FAR MORE than a celebrity for the right. When the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll tested Bannon’s favorability in October 2017, 17 percent of Republicans viewed him positively, while 15 percent viewed him negatively. (An additional 34 percent were neutral, and 35 percent hadn’t heard of him.) Compare that with the majority of Democrats — 63 percent — who expressed a negative view of Bannon, with an additional 28 percent who hadn’t heard of him and just about 1 percent who gave him a thumbs up.
Trump shuts down his voter fraud commission
“President Donald Trump abruptly shut down his signature voter fraud commission on Wednesday and instead kicked the issue to the Department of Homeland Security,” NBC’s Alex Johnson reports. “The announcement comes just a week after Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has been running the commission's day-to-day operations in place of Vice President Mike Pence, its official chairman, said the panel would meet later this month.”
“The commission, formally called the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, has been bedeviled by internal dissension, threats of litigation and the refusal of some states to provide information. Its last known meeting was Sept. 12.”
This morning, Trump reacted via Twitter: “Many mostly Democrat States refused to hand over data from the 2016 Election to the Commission On Voter Fraud. They fought hard that the Commission not see their records or methods because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.”
Trump shutting down this commission should end the debate, once and for all, that voter fraud was rampant in 2016 — and the reason why Trump lost the popular vote.
Random drawing in that tied Virginia race takes place today
"A Virginia court on Wednesday rejected a legal challenge to its decision to count a contested ballot that tied a closely watched state House of Delegates race, clearing the way for election officials to randomly pick the winner in accordance with state law," NBC's Dartunorro Clark writes. "James Alcorn, the chairman of the Virginia Board of Elections, told NBC News on Wednesday the board will randomly select a winner in the tied House of Delegates race on Thursday morning after initially postponing the drawing in the wake of the legal challenge."
More: "The court in Newport News, Virginia, denied a motion filed in late December by Democrat Shelly Simonds, who was the initial winner in her 94th district race against Republican David Yancey after a dizzying recount. Pieces of paper with each candidate's name on them will be cut into the same size and placed into two old film canisters Thursday. The canisters will then be placed in a large glass bowl. The bowl will be shaken and then Alcorn will pick the winner and another board member will open the canister with the loser's name."