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Piecing Together the Russian Story Amid Flynn Fallout

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: Trump speaks by phone with Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump, joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Jan. 28, 2017.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters, file

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Piecing together all of the different Russia-Trump stories

Another day, another story about Russia involving Team Trump. This time, according to both the New York Times and CNN, it’s that members of the Trump campaign had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence figures. (NBC News has not independently confirmed these reports.)

“Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials,” the Times writes. “High-level advisers close to then-presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to US intelligence,” CNN adds.

Before these stories were published, the Trump White House denied that campaign officials had contact with the Russians. Neither the Times article nor the CNN report contains a smoking gun. But then add them to all of the other Russia-Trump storylines:

  • Trump’s constant praise of Russia’s Vladimir Putin (“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” Trump tweeted during the transition).
  • Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to benefit Trump’s campaign.
  • Trump’s embrace of that interference (“Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,” he said in the final days of the ’16 campaign).
  • And National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation after misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump officials about his communication with Russia’s ambassador.

Isolated, these seem to be unprecedented stories for a presidential campaign or incoming new administration. But taken together, they have the potential — and we have to stress that word right now — to be something even bigger. Meanwhile, President Trump has reacted via Twitter to the newest Russia-related stories. “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign,” he said. “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia.”

Pence was kept in the dark for two full weeks about Flynn’s inconsistencies

On “Today” this morning, NBC’s Hallie Jackson has more on Flynn’s resignation. “At the White House, new revelations Vice President Mike Pence didn’t know Mike Flynn may have misled him about a call with the Russian ambassador — for two full weeks — after the president was notified about potential inconsistencies.” Jackson adds, “NBC News is the first to report the vice president was in the dark until this past Thursday when media reports surfaced, indicating the now-former national security adviser may have talked sanctions in a call with the Russian ambassador.”

NBC’s Pete Williams: Flynn unlikely to face legal jeopardy

Per NBC’s Pete Williams, the FBI interviewed Flynn shortly after he took office about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, but this was part of the FBI’s bigger investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. And Williams adds, according to two sources, the FBI doesn’t believe Flynn will face legal jeopardy. One possible problem for Flynn is if he lied to FBI agents. But the people Williams spoke with don’t believe this will be a problem.

Washington Post:Trump won’t emphasize the need for a two-state solution to Middle East peace

At noon ET, President Trump holds a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. And the Washington Post reports that Trump won’t emphasize the need for a two-state solution for Middle East peace.

“President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will formally inaugurate their partnership Wednesday in talks that could shape a new approach by Washington that does not emphasize on a two-state peace framework for the region. Such a move, outlined by a U.S. official before the meetings, would mark a sharp contrast to Obama administration policies that strongly supported the two-state formula as the best option for potential peace deals between Israel and Palestinians. Many Palestinians also would view the shift as a virtual abandonment of the principle adopted by preceding administrations, both Republican and Democrat.”

Tension in DNC chair race coming from outside the party -- not inside

Here’s a dispatch from NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald and one of us on the DNC chair race, which takes place on Feb. 25: “A largely unspoken truth about the race to be the Democratic National Committee's next chairman is that the major candidates agree on almost all the issues — at least the ones relevant to the job they're pursuing... They want to reinstate a 50-state strategy, focus more on organizing, establish greater transparency at the DNC and heal the wounds from the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

"Another truth: Many of the 447 DNC members who get to cast a vote for chairman later this month will be pleased if any of the frontrunners, especially Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) or former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, ends up winning... Instead, most of the tension in the race is coming from Democrats and progressives outside the candidate field and DNC party membership, who view the contest as another proxy fight between Bernie Sanders and the so-called Democratic establishment, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”

Trump Cabinet Watch

“Retired wrestling executive Linda McMahon was easily confirmed by the Senate Tuesday to run the federal Small Business Administration,” the Hartford Courant writes. That means now 12 members of Trump’s team have won Senate confirmation.

  • Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson CONFIRMED
  • Attorney General: Jeff Sessions CONFIRMED
  • Treasury: Steve Mnuchin CONFIRMED
  • Defense: JamesMattis CONFIRMED
  • Homeland: John Kelly CONFIRMED
  • Interior: Ryan Zinke NOMINATED
  • HHS: Tom Price CONFIRMED
  • HUD: Ben Carson NOMINATED
  • Education: Betsy DeVos CONFIRMED
  • Commerce: Wilbur Ross NOMINATED
  • Transportation: Elaine Chao CONFIRMED
  • Labor: Andy Puzder NOMINATED
  • Agriculture: Sonny Perdue NOMINATED
  • Energy: Rick Perry NOMINATED
  • Veterans Affairs: David Shulkin CONFIRMED
  • OMB Director: Mick Mulvaney NOMINATED
  • U.S Trade Representative: Robert Lighthizer NOMINATED
  • UN Ambassador: Nikki Haley CONFIRMED
  • Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt NOMINATED
  • Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon CONFIRMED
  • CIA Director: Mike Pompeo CONFIRMED

What were other new presidents doing on February 15?

  • As Obama spends the weekend in Chicago, Republicans start going public with complaints that his promises of bipartisanship haven’t held up
  • George W. Bush signs his first bill into law (a joint resolution recognizing Ronald Reagan’s birthday)
  • Bill Clinton gives his first televised Oval Office address, promoting a new economic plan that includes tax hikes and spending cuts
  • George H.W. Bush speaks at the South Carolina legislature on a trip to plug his new budget
  • Ronald Reagan’s team floats a plan to set up six “Cabinet councils” to shape administration policy
  • Jimmy Carter directs his Cabinet to prepare for “the implementation of zero-base budgeting”