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Rex Tillerson Has the Toughest Job in the World Today

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: Former ExxonMobil executive Rex Tillerson testifies during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 11, 2017.
Former ExxonMobil executive Rex Tillerson testifies during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 11, 2017.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

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.

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Rex Tillerson has the toughest job in the world this morning

The good news for Rex Tillerson: The U.S. Senate confirmed him Wednesday, by a 56-43 vote, to be this country’s next secretary of state, and he was sworn into the job last night. Here’s the bad news: He might have the hardest job in the world this morning trying to deal with — or clean up — these three stories that popped up in just the last 24 hours.

  • Trump’s combative call with Australia’s prime minister: “It should have been one of the most congenial calls for the new commander in chief — a conversation with the leader of Australia, one of America’s staunchest allies, at the end of a triumphant week,” the Washington Post writes. “Instead, President Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.” Trump tweeted this morning, “Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!” (In fact, they are refugees, not illegal immigrants.)
  • Trump suggested to Mexico’s president that he might send U.S. military forces across the border to take care of “bad hombres”: “‘You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,’ Trump told Pena Nieto, according to the excerpt given to AP. ‘You aren't doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn't, so I just might send them down to take care of it.’” (The Mexican government said that a negative conversation didn’t occur and that the call was “constructive,” per the AP.)
  • The Trump White House puts Iran “on notice”: “Tension between the Trump administration and Iran continued to rise Wednesday when National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said the White House was putting Tehran ‘on notice,’ an apparent threat of retaliation for a recent ballistic missile test,” according to NBC News.

In any other administration we’ve covered — Bill Clinton’s, George W. Bush’s, Barack Obama’s — just one of these kind of stories would have rocked the political world, produced days of news, and generated a back-and-forth between critics and supporters. But those three stories above all happened in the span of a few hours yesterday. As NBC’s Andrea Mitchell remarked, TIllerson “inherits an angry and frightened workforce emerging crises w/ Iran and Ukraine.” And that was before the news about Australia and Mexico.

Insufficient intelligence, ground support, and backup preparations?

There’s another Trump cabinet member who has a tough job this morning — Defense secretary James Mattis. Ditto National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Reuters, following up on earlier news that NBC News reported, writes, “The U.S. military said on Wednesday it was looking into whether more civilians were killed in a raid on al Qaeda in Yemen on the weekend, in the first operation authorized by President Donald Trump as commander in chief. U.S. Navy SEAL William ‘Ryan’ Owens was killed in the raid on a branch of al Qaeda, also known as AQAP, in al Bayda province, which the Pentagon said also killed 14 militants. However, medics at the scene said about 30 people, including 10 women and children, were killed... U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.” The New York Times has more: “As it turned out, almost everything that could go wrong did [in that raid]. And on Wednesday, Mr. Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to be present as the body of the American commando killed in the raid was returned home, the first military death on the new commander in chief’s watch.”

A tale of two different White House responses — on Iran and Ukraine

Compare and contrast these two responses at yesterday’s White House briefing:

  • "We are officially putting Iran on notice," National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said.
  • "The president has been kept aware ... of what's going on in Ukraine," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer added.

And do note what’s happening in Ukraine: “Fighting in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian armed forces is escalating, officials have warned,” CNN writes. “A higher number of ceasefire violations were reported between Sunday and Monday evenings, compared with the previous 24 hours, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine said Monday. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said eight Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the Donbass region in two days. ‘Russian occupation forces carried out massive attacks across the contact line using all available weapons, including (artillery, mortars and tanks) — all prohibited by the Minsk agreements — and small arms,’ the ministry said. At least 26 troops were wounded.” It’s still striking how Trump is willing to criticize or raise his voice to other world leaders — including Australia’s — but never to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

DeVos’s confirmation is in trouble

“Billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos' bid to be President Donald Trump's Secretary of Education could be in jeopardy after two Republican senators announced Wednesday that they'll vote against confirming her for the job,” one of us writes. “Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska both said they cannot support DeVos, a fierce advocate for charter schools and voucher programs as well a prolific donor to Republican causes. Republican leaders have been racing to shore up support for the nominee and soon after Collins and Murkowski's announcements GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada said that he will back her confirmation, calling her ‘the right choice for this position.’ The next procedural vote on her nomination is now expected on Friday. The White House expressed confidence Wednesday afternoon that DeVos will ultimately be confirmed, despite the defections. But it'll be close. Republicans hold a narrow 52-seat majority in the Senate. Without Collins and Murkowski, DeVos' nomination faces a 50-50 deadlocked Senate — confirmation requires a simple majority.”

Did Bernie’s statement about Joe Biden’s endorsement backfire?

On Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Tom Perez to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. And then Bernie Sanders, who is backing Keith Ellison for the position, released this statement: "Joe Biden is a friend of mine and I have a lot of respect for Tom Perez. In terms of the next chair of the DNC, however, the question is simple: Do we stay with a failed status-quo approach or do we go forward with a fundamental restructuring of the Democratic Party? I say we go forward and create a grassroots party which speaks for working people and is prepared to stand up to the top 1 percent. That’s why we have to support Keith Ellison." A “failed status-quo approach”? Question: Does Sanders’ statement help Ellison’s bid? Or hurt it?

What were other presidents doing on Feb. 2?

  • Barack Obama publicly defends Tom Daschle, his pick for HHS Secretary, amid revelations that he failed to pay taxes on the use of a car and driver.
  • George W. Bush makes an unprecedented visit to Democrats at their annual retreat
  • Bill Clinton pledges during a speech at the National Governors Association to "end welfare as we know it" and give "a hand up, not a handout"
  • George H.W. Bush meets with the Japanese prime minister in his first official visit from a foreign leader
  • Ronald Reagan meets with the Korean president
  • Jimmy Carter delivers a "fireside chat" from the White House library, donning a sweater for the remarks about the ongoing energy crisis

Finally, here’s your moment of Zen for the day

Dr. Bornstein is back: “President Trump takes medication for three ailments, including a prostate-related drug to promote hair growth, Mr. Trump’s longtime physician, Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, said in a series of recent interviews,” the New York Times says. “The other drugs are antibiotics to control rosacea, a common skin problem, and a statin for elevated blood cholesterol and lipids.” And check out this paragraph: “At times in the interviews, Dr. Bornstein was moody, ranging from saying that Mr. Trump’s health ‘is none of your business’ to later volunteering facts. He also meandered, referring to his longtime study of Italian and stories about medical schools floating cadavers to an island off the waters of New York. He said he liked the attention he got from friends now that he was publicly known as Mr. Trump’s doctor but disliked “the fun made of me” by the news media and strangers who have thrown objects at his office window and who have yelled at him on Park Avenue.”