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The state of our union has become increasingly fragile

Some of the basic premises that keep the country in balance are being placed in jeopardy.
Image: Donald Trump
Trump walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Dec. 21. in Washington, DC. Donald Trump's first year in office has been a gripping spectacle of scandal, controversy and polarization that has utterly transformed the way Americans and their president interact.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

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.

WASHINGTON — On the day that President Trump delivers his first State of the Union address, the political news over the last 24 hours suggests that the state of our republic — the checks and balances, the separation of law enforcement from the White House, and the danger of foreign interference in our elections — has become increasingly fragile.

  • The No. 2 official at the FBI stepped down after being criticized by the president: “FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who has been attacked by President Donald Trump, stepped down Monday,” per NBC News. NBC’s Carol Lee also reported that Trump said this to McCabe after the president was furious that former FBI Director James Comey took a government plane home after being fired: “The president was silent for a moment and then turned on McCabe, suggesting he ask his wife how it feels to be a loser — an apparent reference to a failed campaign for state office in Virginia that McCabe’s wife made in 2015.”
  • White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has lectured senior Justice Department officials “to convey Trump’s displeasure”: Bloomberg News: “Kelly held separate meetings or phone calls with senior Justice Department officials last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to convey Trump’s displeasure and lecture them on the White House’s expectations, according to the people. Kelly has taken to ending such conversations with a disclaimer that the White House isn’t expecting officials to do anything illegal or unethical.”
  • House Republicans voted to release a classified memo focused on investigating the investigators in the Russia probe: “The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday to make public a classified memo about some of the government's most sensitive secrets, prompting Democrats to accuse the Republican majority of playing politics with national security to protect President Donald Trump. Republicans have said the Republican-written memo examines how the FBI eavesdrops on suspects in national security investigations... Democrats say the memo is a grossly distorted attack on the Mueller probe,” per NBC News.
  • The Trump administration refused to sanction anyone for Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The AP: “The Trump administration late Monday released a long-awaited list of 114 Russian politicians and 96 ‘oligarchs’ who have flourished during the reign of President Vladimir Putin, fulfilling a demand by Congress that the U.S. punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. Yet the administration paired that move with a surprising announcement that it had decided not to punish anybody — for now — under new sanctions retaliating for the election-meddling. Some U.S. lawmakers said President Donald Trump was giving a free pass to those Congress intended to target, fueling further questions about whether the president is too soft on Russia.”

Bottom line: The Trump administration has instilled fear at the FBI (what was McCabe’s offense – other than being married to a Democrat?); it has sowed doubts about the FBI (whose decisions in the last 12 days of the 2016 presidential election helped Trump!); it has received protection from House Republican leaders; and it’s doing the bare minimum when it comes to Russia’s interference in the ’16 race.

Remember the Johnny Cochran defense: If you don’t like the facts, make the case about the fact-gatherers. Well, that’s what’s happening with the Russia probe. And, right now, Trump is succeeding.

A reminder: The Russia investigation is real

And here’s an important reminder: The investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election — and its ties to the Trump campaign — is real. And everything we’ve learned over the past year has only confirmed that reality. To recap:

  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe has resulted in the guilty pleas (for lying to the FBI) of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
  • The Mueller probe also has produced two indictments — of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign aide Rick Gates.
  • Donald Trump Jr., Manfort, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Kremlin-connected individuals in June 2016 — after Trump Jr. received this email from publicist Rob Goldstone: "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
  • WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange traded direct messages with Trump Jr. in the fall of the 2016 campaign. The Atlantic provides this exchange: "'Hiya, it'd be great if you guys could comment on/push this story,' WikiLeaks suggested, attaching a quote from then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton about wanting to 'just drone' WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. 'Already did that earlier today,' Trump Jr. responded an hour-and-a-half later. 'It's amazing what she can get away with.'"

And those are the things we now know — and didn’t know a year ago. Indeed, there hasn’t been one development that has lessened suspicion of Russia’s ties and contacts to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

Trump to discuss immigration, infrastructure in State of the Union address

Beginning at 9:00 pm ET, President Trump will deliver his State of the Union address, and USA Today provides this preview: “President Trump says he'll use his State of the Union address Tuesday to make a bipartisan appeal to Congress on immigration and infrastructure in the coming year. But first, Trump isn't quite done talking about the year that's passed.”

More: “Trump said Monday he will use his annual address to Congress to tout "our great success with the markets and with the tax cut"before tackling some of the things he'd like to achieve in 2018 — a list that includes infrastructure spending, an immigration bill and renegotiated trade agreements. Those two objectives — look both backwards and forwards, claiming credit for past accomplishments but also proposing new initiatives — have come to define the highly formulaic, ritualized speech to Congress.”

The curse of the State of the Union responder

Giving the official Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union is Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass. And over the past decade, that honor has been more a curse than a blessing. Here’s the list, as one of us wrote a couple of years ago:

2007: Jim Webb: One-time Democratic hero to man who quickly dropped out of 2016 presidential race

2008: Kathleen Sebelius: Obamacare website rollout!

2009: Bobby Jindal: That awkward introduction in 2009, the failed 2016 presidential bid

2010: Bob McDonnell: Convicted on federal corruption charges in 2014, which were later overturned by the Supreme Court

2011: Paul Ryan: A year later, he was part of the losing presidential ticket. And while he’s now House speaker, he’s in a job no one else in Congress wanted after John Boehner stepped down

2012: Mitch Daniels: The onetime Indiana governor coulda been a contender(!) for president in 2012, but passed on a run. He’s now out of politics, serving as the president of Purdue University

2013: Marco Rubio: The sip of water seen ‘round the world

2014: Cathy McMorris Rodgers: She’s safe — so far

2015: Joni Ernst: She’s safe — so far

2016: Nikki Haley: Now Trump’s UN ambassador — she’s safe for now

2017: Steve Beshear: Now out of politics

Trump’s first year as president — by the numbers

Job approval rating

  • Trump: 39 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 50 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 82 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 60 percent (January 1994)


Job approval with own party

  • Trump: 78 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 75 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 94 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 66 percent (January 1994)


Job approval with opposing party

  • Trump: 8 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 11 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 70 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 43 percent (January 1994)


Job approval with independents

  • Trump: 33 percent (January 2018)
  • Obama: 41 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 81 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 51 percent (January 1994)


Unemployment rate

  • Trump: 4.1 percent (December 2017)
  • Obama: 9.8 percent (January 2010)
  • Bush: 5.7 percent (January 2002)
  • Clinton: 6.6 percent (January 1994)
  • H.W. Bush: 5.4 percent (January 1990)

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Dow Jones increase/decrease since entering office

  • Trump: 19,785.06-> 26,439.48 (+34 percent)
  • Obama: 8,279.63-> 10,196.86 (+23 percent)
  • Bush: 10,581-> 9,840.08 (-7 percent)
  • Clinton: 3,256.00-> 3,895.34 (+20 percent)
  • H.W. Bush: 2,236.61-> 2,561.04 (+15 percent)

Total bills signed into law

  • Trump: 118
  • Barack Obama: 125
  • Bush: 137
  • Clinton: 208
  • H.W. Bush 243

SOURCE: Govtrack, NBC News

Total bill signed into law that weren’t commemorations/namings/appointments

  • Trump: 102
  • Obama: 80
  • Bush: 104
  • Clinton: 146
  • H.W. Bush: 138

SOURCE: Govtrack, NBC News

Executive-branch nominations confirmed by U.S. Senate

  • Trump: 305
  • Obama: 452
  • Bush: 534
  • Clinton: 471
  • H.W. Bush: 405

SOURCE: Partnership for Public Service

Top DNC official is out

“The CEO of the Democratic National Committee is leaving after less than a year on the job,” NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald reports. “Veteran Democrat operative Jess O’Connell took the helm of the DNC last May with a mandate to help newly installed Chairman Tom Perez turn around a troubled party organization that was struggling after years of neglect and a brutal 2016 that included accusations of favoritism in the primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the hacking of internal emails, and the loss to President Donald Trump.”