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Replacing ousted Cabinet heads has become harder than Trump planned

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
by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /
Image: Senate Committee Holds Confirmation Hearing For Rep. Mike Pompeo To Become Director Of C.I.A.
President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for the director of the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) attends his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

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WASHINGTON — When President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a month ago (it seems much longer than that, right?), he and his team probably didn’t think they’d have to work this hard to confirm Tillerson’s replacement Mike Pompeo.

They’ve put out the word that Pompeo met with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, ostensibly to help with the confirmation fight; they’ve tried to twist Rand Paul’s arm from being “no” to “yes”; and they’re putting pressure on Democrats, especially those from red states, to support Pompeo.

All of this over someone who ALREADY won Senate confirmation a year ago to be CIA director.

And the difficulty to confirm Pompeo raises this question: Can Trump afford to fire any other cabinet members or appointees who need Senate confirmation in the current 51-49 U.S. Senate? If you’re EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt or HUD Secretary Ben Carson, you’re probably breathing a sigh of relief about your job when observing just how hard it has been for Trump to replace Rex Tillerson.

And the upcoming confirmations for Gina Haspel (CIA) and even Ronny Jackson (VA) won’t be easy, either.

NBC’s Frank Thorp reports that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled its committee vote on Pompeo forMonday at 5:00 pm ET.

The red-state Democrats’ dilemma on Pompeo

While Team Trump has had roll up its sleeves to get Pompeo confirmed, red-state Democrats facing re-election this year — Sens. Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly — face a dilemma on Pompeo.

Do they vote FOR his vote confirmation, risking alienating base Democrats they’ll need even in these red states? Or do they vote AGAINST him, and risk seeming like a partisan engaging in obstruction when they’re trying to tout their bipartisan credentials?

Trump made three inaccurate statements or misleading claims at Wednesday’s news conference

Trump Claim #1: "[T]here was no collusion, and that's been so found, as you know, by the House Intelligence Committee. There's no collusion. There was no collusion with Russia, other than by the Democrats — or, as I call them, the ‘obstructionists,’ because they truly are obstructionists."

The Facts: While Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have said there was no collusion between Russia and Trump's 2016 campaign, Democrats on the committee don't agree. And neither do Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "The issue of collusion is still open, that we continue to investigate both intelligence and witnesses, and that we're not in a position where we will come to any type of temporary finding on that until we've completed the process," Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr, R-N.C, said back in October 2017. In addition, Democrats and Republicans agree that the original Russia probe was triggered by the revelation that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told a foreign diplomat that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Trump Claim #2: “This is a hoax,” Trump said of the Russia probe and the Mueller investigation.

The Facts: In less than a year of work, the Mueller investigation has already resulted in 19 individuals being charged with crimes, including:

  • five who pleaded guilty (among them the president’s former national security adviser, a top campaign and transition aide, and Papadopoulos);
  • one who’s been sentenced to jail (for 30 days);
  • and 13 Russian nationals.

While it there is no proof directly linking Trump to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, this is quite a rap sheet of indictments and guilty pleas.

Trump Claim #3: “There has been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump... There has been nobody tougher than me.”

The Facts: Beyond glossing over Cold War presidents (like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, LBJ, or even Ronald Reagan), Trump has:

  • consistently avoided directly criticizing Russia for its interference in the 2016 campaign, although his administration Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. on Russia for its interference;
  • said he’s believed Putin’s denial of interference ("Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,'" Trump said last November. "And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it”);
  • told Russians — in the Oval Office — that firing James Comey relieved “great pressure” on him (“I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off”);
  • and most recently, decided NOT to impose sanctions on Russia for the recent chemical attack in Syria (“We'll do sanctions as soon as they very much deserve it, we will have -- that is a question,” he said at yesterday’s news conference).

Wall Street Journal and Politico report that Trump advisers are worried that Michael Cohen will turn against the president

By the way, if the Russia investigation was a hoax and there was nothing to hide, would we be seeing articles like this?

Wall Street Journal: “One of President Donald Trump’s longtime legal advisers said he warned the president in a phone call Fridaythat Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and close friend, would turn against the president and cooperate with federal prosecutors if faced with criminal charges.”

Politico: “President Donald Trump and his outside advisers are increasingly worried that his longtime personal attorney might be susceptible to cooperating with federal prosecutors.”

The problem when individuals from supposed nonpartisan institutions go after Trump

Writing for Bloomberg View,Noah Feldman argues that the Comey vs. Trump episode reveals the problem when people from supposed nonpartisan institutions go after Trump:

“If Comey really wanted to preserve the value of responsible, apolitical law enforcement, you would think he would refrain from writing a book attacking a sitting president and waging a media blitz to tar him as unfit. But in the current environment, Comey no doubt tells himself that silence would mean conceding to Trump. By speaking out, Comey must believe he is fighting for the traditional notion that as an independent nonpartisan, he should be believed.”

Feldman believes this applies to the press as well: “The problem with a headline saying that the president has lied is that, even if accurate, it makes the newspapers seem politicized rather than objective.”

Rundown on the 2018 midterms

In case you missed them, here are some of the recent midterm developments that we’ve chronicled on our “Rundown” blog: Republican Rep. Todd Rokita, who’s running in the May 8 Indiana Senate primary, has been told by Trump’s re-election campaign to take down misleading signs making it seem the president endorsed him… The DCCCmisfired on a press release listing TX-7 candidate Lizzie Fletcher on its “red to blue” program and then corrected it, omitting Fletcher’s name… Outgoing Sen. Bob Corker praised the Democrat – Phil Bredesen – running to replace him… NBC’s Renee Hickman writes up the new polling project Democratic groups unveiled on Wednesday… And a Quinnipiac poll showed Sen. Ted Cruz leading Beto O’Rourke by just three points in Texas.

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