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Supreme Court battle overshadows bad news for Trump

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 /  / Updated 

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WASHINGTON — Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court last month not only allows President Donald Trump to fill his second Supreme Court vacancy, it also threw him a lifeline as he was facing several other perilous storylines. The president is set to officially announce his pick Monday night at 9 p.m. ET.

Indeed, here are at least five stories that would be getting MUCH MORE attention right now if it weren’t for Monday night’s Supreme Court announcement and the inevitable political battle over Trump’s nominee:

  1. Trump’s ballyhooed Singapore summit with North Korea has now turned into a debacle: “On Saturday, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo finished talks with North Korean officials in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un's foreign ministry accused the Trump administration of a ‘unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization,’” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell wrote. Remember when Trump tweeted this in June: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Talk about a “Mission Accomplished” moment.
  2. Those blown-up North Korea talks only put more pressure on Trump’s upcoming summit with Vladimir Putin: “The president should clearly understand that neither the Russians nor dictators like Kim Jong Un are going to be charmed by anybody. They are very cold-blooded, calculating. Putin would be in that category,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Trump, meanwhile, continues to criticize NATO members more than Putin’s Russia. “The United States is spending far more on NATO than any other Country. This is not fair, nor is it acceptable,” he tweeted this morning.
  3. Soy farmers — including those from key 2018 and 2020 battlegrounds — say they’re getting harmed from Trump’s trade war with China: “Soy farmers are caught in the cross hairs of an escalating trade war that only got hotter Friday after China responded tit-for-tat to a new round of U.S. tariffs,” per NBC’s Ben Popken. “‘The math is simple. You tax soybean exports at 25 percent, and you have serious damage to U.S. farmers,’ said John Heisdorffer, a soybean grower from Keota, Iowa, and president of the American Soybean Association (ASA), in a statement.”
  4. Migrant children are still separated from their families: “As many as 3,000 migrant children remain in government custody after being separated from their parents at the border, more than a week after a court ordered the Trump administration to reunite families, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Thursday,” HuffPost wrote last week.
  5. Trump’s lawyers are becoming more confrontational with special counsel Robert Mueller: “We would not recommend an interview for the president unless they can satisfy us that there’s some basis for this investigation. It's our, it’s our firm belief, and we think nothing contradicts this, that the president did nothing wrong,” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said on “Meet” yesterday.

So the upcoming Supreme Court pick has given Trump a temporary break from these stories dominating today’s news. But these stories also aren’t going away.

NBC News: Trump’s greatest focus is on Kavanaugh and Hardiman

A source with first-hand knowledge of Trump’s Supreme Court selection process tells NBC’s Peter Alexander that none of the four top contenders to be Trump’s pick — Amy Barrett, Thomas Hardiman, Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge — has been eliminated. But the source adds that the greatest focus of attention is on Kavanaugh and Hardiman.

Then again, the White House appears to be sending mixed signals — perhaps intentionally. Time reports that, as of Saturday night, Kethledge was the leading contender. But The New York Times says that Kethledge’s stock is down (“People close to the process said the president had found him likable but comparatively dull”), while Hardiman’s is up (“Some close to the president said he found Judge Hardiman’s personal story, offered to him by the judge’s supporters, to be compelling”).

As The New York Times writes, Trump “loves the drama surrounding an important nomination. Over the past three days, he has stoked uncertainty among even his closest aides by asking lots of questions but offering little in return, according to those who have spoken with him.”

Rudy Giuliani to Mueller: “Show us something. … There’s nothing.” But that isn’t exactly true

Explaining why Trump’s legal team is recommending that the president NOT speak to special counsel Robert Mueller, Rudy Giuliani said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday:

“It's our firm belief, and we think nothing contradicts this, that the president did nothing wrong. In all the leaking that's gone on there's been no leak of any fact that says the president conspired with anybody in Russia. I know from having been on the campaign there was no contact with Russians, no discussion with Russians. So we've got to see something. I mean, something started this investigation. What we're asking them for is: Is this the witch hunt that a lot of people think it is? Or is there a factual basis for this? You did that big, long counterintelligence investigation, which seems very, very questionable with very biased people who hated Trump and wanted to stop him. What did they find? Show us something. Mueller's been at it for 13, 14 months. 1.4 million documents. 29 witnesses. What did he find? Is there somebody who says there was a meeting where Trump discussed conspiracy to do this? There's nothing.”

But Giuliani stating “there’s nothing” isn’t true — at least when it comes to Trump’s 2016 campaign team. In a little more than a year, there have been multiple indictments, multiple guilty pleas and even jail time for top Trump officials, including his campaign chairman (Paul Manafort), a top campaign and transition aide (Rick Gates) and Trump’s first national security adviser (Michael Flynn). That’s quite a rap sheet for an investigation that’s lasted less than half of the time that the House select committee on Benghazi existed (May 2014 to December 2016).

More Ohio State wrestlers say Rep. Jim Jordan knew about sexual abuse when he was a coach

NBC News: “More former Ohio State University wrestlers have come forward to contradict Rep. Jim Jordan’s claim that he had no idea the wrestling team doctor was molesting athletes. One of the wrestlers, Shawn Dailey, said he was groped half a dozen times by Dr. Richard Strauss in the mid-1990s, when Jordan was the assistant wrestling coach. Dailey said he was too embarrassed to report the abuse directly to Jordan at the time, but he said Jordan took part in conversations where Strauss' abuse of many other team members came up.”

“Jordan, via spokesman Ian Fury, has denied any knowledge of the abuse. On Wednesday, Jordan, a founder of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus, who has been floated to succeed retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, repeated the denial in an interview with Politico. ‘It’s not true,’ said Jordan, who was assistant wrestling coach at the university from 1986 to 1994. ‘I never knew about any type of abuse. If I did, I would have done something about it.’”

The Washington Post says that, as of last night, seven wrestlers have said “Jordan knew or must have known about Strauss’s alleged behavior or other sexually inappropriate conduct in the showers at Ohio State’s Larkins Hall.”

The growing Democratic divide over icing ICE

NBC’s Rebecca Shabad: “The question of whether to abolish ICE, the government agency at the forefront of enforcing the Trump administration border policy, emerged as a Democratic fault line this summer — and in recent weeks, the gulf between the two camps has only appeared to widen. Several Senate Democrats — including potential 2020 presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — have joined dozens of insurgent challengers calling for Congress to abolish the the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, as Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., develops legislation that would do just that.”

“Meanwhile, other possible 2020 Democratic contenders — along with party leaders in both Houses, and a swarm of red and purple state incumbents — have pushed for a more cautious approach.”

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