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Mueller appears to be zeroing in on obstruction questions

After the three-day government shutdown and just before President Trump departs for Davos, Switzerland, the Russia story has roared back into the news.
Image: Robert Mueller
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI on June 19, 2013 in Washington.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call file

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 — After the three-day government shutdown and just before President Trump departs for Davos, Switzerland, the Russia story has roared back into the news. And the common thread to all of the new developments is that special counsel Robert Mueller appears to be pursuing a case around these three words – obstruction of justice.

  • On Tuesday, The New York Times first reported that Mueller questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions for several hours last week. “In recent weeks, Mr. Mueller has told the president’s lawyers that he will most likely want to interview Mr. Trump about the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and about the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn,” the Times writes. Remember, Sessions played a key role in Comey’s firing.
  • Also on Tuesday, NBC’s Ken Dilanian confirmed that Mueller’s team also spoke with former FBI Director Comey late last year. “The focus of the interview was the memos he wrote about his interactions with President Trump, the source [close to him] says.”
  • This morning, NBC’s Carol Lee reported that Mueller’s investigators also interviewed CIA Director Mike Pompeo, “who was allegedly asked by Trump to lean on Comey to drop his investigation.”
  • And last night, The Washington Post wrote that after Trump had fired Comey, he met with Acting Director Andrew McCabe in the Oval Office and asked him this question: Who did you vote for in the 2016 election? “McCabe said he didn’t vote, according to the officials... Trump, the officials said, also vented his anger at McCabe over the several hundred thousand dollars in donations that his wife, a Democrat, received for her failed 2015 Virginia state Senate bid from a political action committee controlled by a close friend of Hillary Clinton.”

Add up these different stories, and it’s becoming obvious that obstruction of justice — over the Comey firing, about Michael Flynn — is a REAL issue that Mueller’s team is exploring. And realize, these stories are the low-hanging fruit. We don’t know everything else (financial records, emails, sworn statements) that Mueller’s got.

If Bill Clinton’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch was bad, Trump’s 'Who did you vote for in 2016?' is a hundred times worse

Remember when the political world — including Candidate Trump himself — railed against Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s meeting with Bill Clinton?

Well, Trump asking then-Acting Attorney General Andrew McCabe who he voted for — after the president fired Comey — is much, much worse.

NBC: Flynn kept his FBI interview concealed from the Trump White House for two days

As for Michael Flynn, NBC’s Carol Lee has details about his interview with the FBI a year ago on Jan. 24, 2017 — just four days into Trump’s time in office. “Two people familiar with the matter said Trump was unaware that Flynn had spoken with the FBI until two days after the interview took place... White House counsel Don McGahn was the first senior official to learn of Flynn's interview during a meeting on Jan. 26 with Yates in which she warned him that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other top Trump officials about his conversation with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and could be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government.”

More: “McGahn briefed Trump, Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who left the White House last summer and also has spoken with Mueller's team, on his meeting with Yates that same day including the news of Flynn's FBI interview, people familiar with the matter said. Yates has testified before Congress that McGahn asked her how Flynn did in his FBI interview, to which she said she replied that she could not comment on it.”

Trump: If there is no wall, there is no DACA

As for the political fight over immigration, NBC’s Frank Thorp confirms that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., informed the White House Sunday that he withdrew his offer to give Trump all the money he wanted for his border wall — in return for protection for DACA recipients.

Schumer told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last night: “I sat down with President Trump on Friday and offered him quite a bit. He made an offer for a wall. I said if we do full 'Dreamers,' we'll give you the deal and he basically agreed. So, we were close. Then he pulled out and backed off, so now I’ve taken the wall off the table because they backed out of that deal, and then he shut the government down.”

This morning, Trump tweeted: “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA. We must have safety and security, together with a strong Military, for our great people!”

Did Manchin threaten to retire if Democrats didn’t end their shutdown?

That SURE seems to be his suggestion to The New York Times.

“In an interview, Mr. Manchin said he repeatedly expressed his frustration to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and other colleagues, telling them that 'this place sucks,' before finally signaling Tuesday morning to Mr. Schumer’s aides that he would file his re-election paperwork before West Virginia’s deadline on Saturday. ‘I was very vocal,’ Mr. Manchin said, adding, ‘they read between the lines.’”

Question: Does the Democratic and progressive base now know why Schumer and other Democrats leaped onto the opportunity to find a bipartisan solution to DACA — instead of continuing the shutdown?

Canada’s prime minister has tweeted about the tragic shootings in Kentucky, while America’s president hasn’t

Meanwhile, when it comes to Trump’s Twitter feed, it’s striking that the president has NOT commented on the tragic school shooting in Kentucky. NBC News: “Two students were killed Tuesday and 18 other people were wounded when a 15-year-old boy armed with a handgun opened fire inside a Kentucky high school, the authorities said.”

And it’s doubly striking, as NBC’s Dafna Lizner points out, that CANADA’s prime minister has tweeted about the shooting. “I’ve spoken with Kentucky’s @GovMattBevin to offer condolences on behalf of Canadians for today’s shooting in Benton. Our hearts go out to Kentuckians, and to all those affected by this tragedy,” Canada’s Justin Trudeau wrote.

GOP congressman called aide 'a soul mate' but denies harassment

“U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan acknowledged Tuesday that he had a deep ‘affection’ for a younger aide and told her last year that he saw her as ‘a soul mate,’ but said he never pursued a romantic relationship with the woman and, despite paying her a secret settlement, denied her claims of sexual harassment,” per The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, also said that he initially reacted ‘poorly’ when he found out that the longtime aide, decades younger, had begun a serious relationship with another man and might leave his office. He released a heartfelt letter he wrote to her in May in which he wished her well, thanked God ‘for putting you into my life,’ and signed it, ‘With all my heart, Patrick.’”

As The New York Times’ Alex Burns tweets, “I’ve been fortunate to have a number of bosses become close personal friends, and I can count the number of times they’ve signed a message “with all my heart” on no hands.”

Looks like Alabama Republicans haven’t learned the right lessons from their defeat last month

As The Montgomery Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported, the Alabama House approved a bill ENDING special elections for appointments to the U.S. Senate, and the measure now goes to the state Senate.

But someday, there will be a Senate vacancy in Alabama when there’s a Democratic governor, and the state GOP will remember to kick itself for being shortsighted back in 2018 — and realizing the law of unintended consequences wins again.

Bottom line: Alabama Republicans haven’t learned the right lessons from their defeat last month. Instead of changing the laws, how about picking a better nominee?