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New White House Chief of Staff John Kelly Makes His Mark

All the latest on new White House chief of staff John Kelly's moves to bring stability to the executive branch, plus the administration's immigration push
Image: John Kelly
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly speaking about immigration enforcement legislation during a press conference on Capitol Hill on June 29, 2017 in Washington. FileSaul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images 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.

John Kelly starts to make his mark

WASHINGTON — As we noted earlier this week, new White House chief of staff John Kelly signaled on his first day on the job that he knew how to use his honeymoon period wisely. Just in the last week, we’ve seen Kelly making moves to reassure D.C. Republicans that he can create more stability in the executive branch.

  • July 29: Kelly personally reassures Attorney General Jeff Sessions that his job is safe despite Trump’s criticisms
  • July 31: Kelly dismisses White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci; he also reportedly tells senior staff that his top goal is to keep Trump from getting bad information.
  • August 2: National security advisor H.R. McMaster fires Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Steve Bannon ally, as the NSC’s senior director for intelligence. (Two other Bannon-affiliated NSC aides have also gotten the boot from McMaster in the past two weeks, the Weekly Standard notes.)

Yes, these may seem like small steps to some. And there have been plenty of other flare-ups of the president’s typical turbulence this week (including a particularly contentious White House briefing yesterday, revelations about Trump’s perception of the war in Afghanistan, and the reemergence of Trump’s typical defiance towards the media on Twitter.)

But the more important pattern to note is this: One of the defining rhythms of the Trump era has been the waxing and waning of Bannon’s influence, particularly when it comes to his clashes with McMaster. Remember, personnel is policy — and the ouster of Bannon acolytes on the NSC speaks volumes about where the new regime is steering things.

Trump’s base will cheer his immigration plan, but it’s headed nowhere

The nationalist Bannon wing may seem like it’s getting a shot in the arm from the administration’s new policy play to cut legal immigration by half and move to a “merit-based system.” The bad news for those folks is that the policy looks like it’s going precisely nowhere. There aren’t 50 votes for the plan in the Senate, let alone the 60 it needs (assuming filibuster rules stay in place.)

The administration’s rhetoric on immigration will give the base something to cheer about, though, even if it is out of step with both Chamber of Commerce Republicans and public opinion more generally. According to the NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, the share of Americans saying that immigration *helps* more than it *hurts* the U.S. hit a high of 60 percent this spring. But among Trump voters, a majority (55 percent) said immigration *hurts* more than it helps. Translation? This is all about red meat for the base, even if it’s dead on arrival.

Trump threatens to fire U.S. commander in Afghanistan

Don’t miss this exclusive from NBC’s Carol Lee and Courtney Kube. “President Donald Trump has become increasingly frustrated with his advisers tasked with crafting a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and recently suggested firing the war's top military commander during a tense meeting at the White House, according to senior administration officials.

“During the July 19 meeting, Trump repeatedly suggested that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford replace Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, because he is not winning the war, the officials said. Trump has not met Nicholson, and the Pentagon has been considering extending his time in Afghanistan.”

More: “To underscore his view that the veterans who fought in the war may be better positioned to advise him on an Afghanistan strategy, Trump compared the policy review process to the renovation of a famed New York restaurant in the 1980s, officials said. Trump told his advisers that the restaurant, Manhattan's elite '21' Club, had shut its doors for a year and hired an expensive consultant to craft a plan for a renovation.”

In Trump’s defense here, he is not the first president to vent about state of progress in Afghanistan. If you take off your partisan hat and ignore for a minute the particularly Trumpian details of the story (the ‘21’ Club? Really?), his reaction isn’t all that different from what new president Barack Obama expressed about Afghanistan early in his tenure.

Trump is having a pretty conventional reaction to a famously thorny conflict — but of course, his past bravado when it comes to military strategy hasn’t exactly earned him a reserve of sympathy, either.

Trump’s Russia sanctions statement puts the Senate in a bind

Technically, yes, Trump signed a Russia sanctions bill yesterday. But make no mistake — he might as well have vetoed it. The White House’s statement showed that Trump didn’t agree with the premise of the legislation and that he’s prepared to fight the sanctions if necessary. Despite what administration folks like Vice President Mike Pence might say, Trump signed the bill because he had to, not because he wanted to.

And then, there's this tweet this morning from Trump: "Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!"

What’s more, Russian leadership seems to be accepting the president's version of events, making it clear they blame Congress but also lamenting Trump’s "weakness." (By the way, Trump still hasn’t said a word about Putin’s move to expel U.S. diplomatic staff.)

"Sheltering in place” in the Senate

As the Senate prepares to skip town for August recess, it’s worth noting that the upper chamber looks like it may break a record this cycle: the least retirements ever. In fact, it’s conceivable that NO senator will retire at all this cycle. Even the two who have been the subject to most speculation about retirement — Utah’s Orrin Hatch and California’s Dianne Feinstein — so far appear to be making moves to stay on the job.

Yes, it’s early, and it’s very possible the landscape will change as the summer goes on. But it’s still VERY unusual to see this lack of movement in the Senate.

In fact, according to Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, half of all Senate retirements since 2006 (with one exception in 2008) had been announced by the end of March of the year before the election. The average number of Senate retirements over the past 20 cycles has been about 6.5; the lowest number has been three, back in 1982.

Why the reluctance to throw in the towel? “Things are so uncertain and these members perhaps almost feel an obligation to provide some stability,” says Duffy. “Everybody’s sort of sheltering in place.”

A big announcement from the Meet the Press team

And finally,yesterday we announced that “Meet the Press with Chuck Todd” will hit the big screen for the first time this fall with the launch of the Meet the Press Film Festival in Collaboration With AFI. This new event will feature contemporary documentaries — 40 minutes in length or less — about policy and people with an emphasis on untold American stories found far from Washington and New York, telling stories from a “diversity of perspective” (meaning geographic, ideological, religious, cultural or racial diversity).

Films presented in the festival will demonstrate a bold commitment to subject matter, excellence in cinematic craft, and innovation in storytelling. The film festival will take place in Washington, D.C. this November. Beginning today, AFI is hosting a call for submissions on their website.