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.
For presidents, August is the cruelest month
WASHINGTON — For presidents of the United States, August almost always stinks. Whether it’s because key allies are out of town and unplugged, because the White House support network is thinner or because the nation’s woes seem a little more acute in Washington’s swampy August weather, presidents often get mired in controversies or crises — and often mishandle them — in the dog days of August. Consider:
- August 2009: Tea Party activists lead boisterous protests at congressional town halls during the summer recess.
- August 2011: Even after the bitter debt ceiling fight is resolved, the brinkmanship leads to a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating. Obama hits his lowest approval rating to date.
- August 2013: After a chemical attack in Syria kills thousands, Obama appears ready to strike but then abruptly reverses course and says he’ll seek congressional approval first.
- August 2014: Journalist James Foley is beheaded by ISIS militants; uncertainty persists in Iraq and Ukraine; riots rock Ferguson, Mo. Obama hits the lowest approval rating of his presidency.
- August 2016: The Obama administration is warned of Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in attempts to interfere in the election but declines to reveal it for fear of fueling accusations of political interference in the campaign.
- August 2001: Bush receives a classified review of intelligence titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” The memo’s declassification the following year prompts criticism that Bush ignored the warning.
- August 2005: Bush’s sluggish response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina scars the remainder of his presidency.
- August 2007: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigns amid the U.S. attorneys scandal and broader questions about his competence.
And then, there’s Bill Clinton’s testimony before a grand jury (August 1998,) the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (August 1968), and Richard Nixon’s resignation (August 1974.)
America’s guardrails rein Trump in, again
Trump leaves town for vacation today after a week that saw him reined in by the guardrails of American democracy — and by his own party.
- Overwhelming support by Congress for Russian sanctions forced Trump to sign the bill despite his objections.
- Republican lawmakers signed on to bills protecting against any attempt by Trump to oust Robert Mueller.
- By locking in pro-forma sessions, the Senate blocked Trump from making recess appointments during the August break.
- GOP senators pushed back against Trump’s pitch to implode Obamacare.
- National security adviser H.R. McMaster cleaned house at the NSC.
McMaster is the new Priebus
Speaking of McMaster, he’s become the new Reince Priebus — the administration official that some Trump diehards love to hate. As we learned yesterday, for example, McMaster has concluded that Susan Rice did nothing wrong — a report that sparked outrage from those who have tried to place Rice at the center of anti-Trump conspiracy theories. And like Priebus, the folks who think McMaster is undermining the president will have plenty of motivation to make his life miserable to try to push him out.
A note about those leaked foreign leader transcripts
It’s not every day that former Obama officials decry a bad story about this president, but it was noteworthy yesterday how many spoke out against the leak of transcripts of Trump’s January calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
Former Obama NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor tweeted: “I would've lost my mind if transcripts of Obama's calls to foreign leaders leaked. He wouldn't have sounded so dumb, but it's still absurd.” And David Axelrod wrote: “Transcripts of @POTUS calls w/leaders of Mexico; Australia were embarrassing. Yet the leaking of them feels like a terrible precedent.”
Transparency arguments aside, this represents a bad precedent that will only make it harder for presidents to speak candidly with global leaders about the best interests of the country. By the way, the more FORMER Trump officials there are out there, the more leaks like this you can expect.
Wall Street Journal reports that Mueller has impaneled a grand jury
Last night’s big breaking story from the Wall Street Journal: “Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury in Washington to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, a sign that his inquiry is growing in intensity and entering a new phase, according to people familiar with the matter. The grand jury, which began its work in recent weeks, signals that Mr. Mueller’s inquiry will likely continue for months.”
The existence of the grand jury would confirm what most watchers of this probe have suspected all along — that the investigation Mueller is conducting is wide-ranging, serious and focused on some possible criminal activity. But this also signals that Mueller is just gearing up. We could have a long wait until the next shoe drops here.
Where Trump’s nominations and confirmations stand as the Senate packs up for August
One of Trump’s most common complaints about Congress has been what he calls its “obstruction” of his nominees. Trump got a big boost in his number of confirmations on Thursday, though, when the Senate greenlighted dozens of pending nominees before leaving town.
The Partnership for Public Service, which compiles data about the political appointments process, reports that — as of last night — 122 Trump appointees had been confirmed (up from just 51 at the beginning of the week).
Trump has now nominated just 267 people out of the more than 1,100 positions requiring Senate confirmation. Despite the recent uptick in confirmations, though, he’s significantly behind recent past presidents. Here’s how they stood at the beginning of summer recess during their first term:
- Obama: 433 nominated, 310 confirmed
- W. Bush: 414 nominated, 294 confirmed
- Clinton: 345 nominated, 252 confirmed
- H.W. Bush: 315 nominated, 208 confirmed
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice switches parties
Yes, last night’s party-switching announcement by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is yet another sign of the political realignment in the Mountain State. After all, in the course of 25 years, the state went from electing Bill Clinton twice to picking Donald Trump by a whopping 42 point margin.
But it’s also got to be noted that Justice, a billionaire and political newcomer, had bounced between the Republican and Democratic parties just months before his gubernatorial run. Rock-ribbed ideology, this ain’t.
Aside from the grim numbers for Democrats nationwide — the GOP’s 34 governors’ mansions is the most held by the party since 1922, per NBC’s Ed Demaria — the most significant fallout from Justice’s decision is the pressure it puts on Joe Manchin, who remains one of just two statewide elected Democrats.
Trump travels to FEMA headquarters for a briefing on hurricane season at 10 a.m. ET. He’ll head to Bedminster for his August vacation this evening.