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The Russia Controversy Shows That Trump's Executive Branch Is Broken

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.
Image: Donald Trump, Haider al-Abadi, Chris Christie, Betsy DeVos, Jeff Sessions
(L-R) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, President Donald Trump, Attorney General Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVosEvan Vucci / AP

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.

Russia controversy shows that Trump’s executive branch is broken

Former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean famously said during Watergate that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. Well, we won’t go as far as saying the Russia probe is a cancer on the Trump White House — but it’s clearly a virus. And it all reveals an executive branch that appears to be broken. Consider:

  • A White House official tells NBC’s Kristen Welker that President Trump was frustrated with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe. And the relationship soured to the point where Sessions suggested that he could resign, ABC News reports.
  • After Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to end his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Comey told Sessions to never leave him alone again with the president, the New York Times says. “His unwillingness to be alone with the president reflected how deeply Mr. Comey distrusted Mr. Trump, who Mr. Comey believed was trying to undermine the F.B.I.’s independence.”
  • And the nation’s top intelligence official, Dan Coats, told associates that “President Trump asked him if he could intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials,” the Washington Post adds.

To sum up: The Russia controversy has so consumed Trump that he lost confidence in his most loyal congressional backer from the campaign (Sessions); that the former FBI director didn’t want to be left alone with the president (and didn’t know who to trust at the Justice Department); and Trump was asking his director of national intelligence to get Comey off Flynn’s back. Heck, Trump yesterday gave top adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner what appeared to be a backhanded compliment: “Jared has actually become much more famous than me — I’m a little upset at that.”

The most charitable interpretation of the Sessions-Comey-Coats news is that Trump believes that all of these officials work for him — and not for the United States. But at worst, these stories suggest a president directly interfering with, and possibly covering up, a federal investigation. Coats testifies today before the Senate Intelligence Committee beginning at 10:00 am ET, while Comey testifies tomorrow.

Trump announces he’s nominating Christopher Wray to succeed Comey as FBI director

Speaking of Comey, Trump this morning announced his pick to lead the FBI. “I will be nominating Christopher A. Wray, a man of impeccable credentials, to be the new Director of the FBI. Details to follow,” he tweeted. Wray was a former Assistant Attorney General in the Bush 43 Justice Department in charge of its criminal division, and he currently practices law at the law firm of King & Spaulding.

Canada’s foreign minister: The United States has given up the mantle of global leadership, and Canada needs to step in

First there was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments late last month that Europe must take its fate in its own hands. And then yesterday came this speech by Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland: “As I have argued, Canada believes strongly that this stable, predictable international order has been deeply in our national interest. And we believe it has helped foster peace and prosperity for our ‎southern neighbors, too. Yet it would be naive or hypocritical to claim before this House that all Americans today agree. Indeed, many of the voters in last year's presidential election cast their ballots, animated in part by a desire to shrug off the burden of world leadership. To say this is not controversial: it is simply a fact.” She added, “The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership, puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course. For Canada that course must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order. We will follow this path, with open hands and open hearts extended to our American friends, seeking to make common cause as we have so often in the past... And, at the same time, we will work with other like-minded people and countries who share our aims.”

We’re not in Kansas anymore? The state raises taxes to erase budget shortfall

“Lawmakers rolled back Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature tax policy over his objections Tuesday night, forcing into law tax increases to fix a budget shortfall and provide more money for schools,” the Wichita Eagle writes. “The legislation ends the ‘march to zero’ income tax cuts that Brownback heralded for much of his time as governor. Income taxes will rise across the board but most tax rates will remain lower than they were before the 2012 tax cuts. The increases are expected to generate more than $1.2 billion for the state over the next two years.” Talk about a political sea change -- the conservative state of Kansas raising taxes! -- which up-ends a central GOP orthodoxy that cutting is always good and raising them is always bad. If you were looking for the breaking point for Republicans on taxes, we found it in Kansas.

Murphy, Guadagno advance in New Jersey

Per the Star Ledger, Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno easily won their respective gubernatorial primaries Tuesday night, and will face off against each other in the November general election. Murphy will be the heavy favorite in that contest. Indeed, Murphy last night almost got more votes (238,000) that the entire GOP field combined (240,000).

Washington Post’s editorial page endorses Northam, Wagner in Virginia

MSNBC’s Garrett Haake notes that the Washington Post’s editorial page endorsed Ralph Northam over Tom Perriello in next week’s Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. “Both are competent, accomplished and astute; Mr. Northam would make the better governor,” writes the Post, which also endorses state Sen. Frank Wagner in the GOP primary over frontrunner Ed Gillespie.

Special Election Watch: Ossoff, Handel tangle over national issues in first debate

“National issues dominated Tuesday evening in the first head-to-head debate between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in the closely-watched contest for Georgia’s 6th District congressional seat,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes. “The duo tangled over many of the same big-ticket policy items that defined last year’s presidential contest, from terrorism to health care to campaign finance. And as much as the candidates sought to carve out their own space, President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were never far from the foreground during the hour-long debate, which aired live on WSB-TV.”