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Trump Cries 'Witch Hunt' as Russia Questions Pile Up

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: Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Orlando Amphitheater.Evan Vucci / AP

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

Trump cries ‘witch hunt’ as Russia questions pile up

According to President Trump, every new story and development involving his team’s contacts with Russia is nothing more than a “total witch hunt.” “The Democrats are overplaying their hand,” he said in a statement last night reacting to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from investigations involving the 2016 presidential campaign. “They lost the election and now they have lost their grip on reality.” But who has the firmer grasp on reality — the Trump White House or those who are waving their arms that something here doesn’t seem right? Consider:

  • Trump’s national security adviser resigns after not being upfront about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador (over whether the issue of sanctions was discussed);
  • Trump’s attorney general recuses himself after the Washington Post reports he met twice with Russia’s envoy — information he didn’t disclose in his confirmation hearing;
  • Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner also meets with Russia’s ambassador in December at the Trump Tower (the ambassador didn’t come through the main lobby where cameras and reporters were staking out the comings and goings);
  • Two other Trump campaign officials, J.D. Gordon and Carter Page, meet with Russia’s ambassador during the GOP convention in Cleveland;
  • Page, speaking with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last night, says, “I’m not going to deny that I talked to him… I have may have possibly — might have met him in Cleveland.”

And those are just the involvements with Russia’s ambassador — the list doesn’t include Trump’s own favorable statements about Russia or Putin, or Team Trump’s non-interest in Russia’s hacking during the 2016 election, or old campaign manager Paul Manafort’s close ties to pro-Russian individuals. As Nicolle Wallace remarked on “Today” this morning, “It’s inexplicable now why so many people had so many meetings with Russians that they forgot about,” she said. “They are either the most forgetful team in political history or the most intimate with Russia.” It’s one or the other…

So what’s next in the Russia inquiries?

NBC’s Ari Melber and Alex Johnson: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal leaves any Justice Department investigation of alleged Russian election interference temporarily in the hands of a prosecutor promoted by Barack Obama. Sessions on Thursday stepped aside from taking any role in federal inquiries into Donald Trump's presidential campaign, including whether officials or surrogates had improper contacts with the Russians. Sessions had a meeting last year in his office with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, which he said was unrelated to the campaign.

That means it's the job of Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente to oversee any investigations related to the presidential campaigns by the FBI or Justice Department attorneys. Boente — whom Obama promoted to U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2015 — would give up that authority when and if a permanent deputy is confirmed. The White House has nominated the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, Rod Rosenstein, a Republican veteran of George W. Bush's administration, to the position. His confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.”

Guess who used personal email for official business? Mike Pence

“Vice President Mike Pence routinely used a private email account to conduct public business as governor of Indiana, at times discussing sensitive matters and homeland security issues,” USA Today writes. “Emails released to The Indianapolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network, in response to a public records request show Pence communicated via his personal AOL account with top advisers on topics ranging from security gates at the governor’s residence to the state’s response to terror attacks across the globe. In one email, Pence’s top state homeland security adviser relayed an update from the FBI regarding the arrests of several men on federal terror-related charges. Cybersecurity experts say the emails raise concerns about whether such sensitive information was adequately protected from hackers, given that personal accounts like Pence's are typically less secure than government email accounts. In fact, Pence's personal account was hacked last summer.”

Pence’s team responds: It’s “absurd” to compare Pence’s email use to Hillary Clinton’s

Pence’s vice-presidential spokesman responded to last night’s news, per NBC’s Hallie Jackson: "Similar to previous governors, during his time as Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence maintained a state email account and a personal email account. As then-Governor Pence concluded his time in office, he directed outside counsel to review all of his communications to ensure that state-related emails are being transferred and properly archived by the state, in accordance with the law, which outside counsel has done and is continuing to do. Government emails involving his state and personal accounts are being archived by the state and are being managed according to Indiana's Access to Public Records Act." Asked about Pence’s repeated attacks on Hillary Clinton’s own email use, the spokesman added: "It’s an absolutely absurd comparison," continuing: "Secretary Clinton set up a private email server in her home as she was taking office to purposely evade public records law."

Recapping Trump’s first six weeks in office

  • Jan. 20: Trump takes the oath as the nation's 45th president.
  • Jan. 21: Speaking at the CIA, Trump mischaracterizes his past statements about the intelligence community, misstates the size of his inaugural crowd, and repeats his claim that the United States should have "kept" Iraq's oil.
  • Jan. 22: Appearing on "Meet the Press," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway says, "Our press secretary gave alternative facts" — about the size of the inaugural crowd.
  • Jan. 23: In a meeting with congressional leaders, Trump repeats claim that 3-5 million "illegals" voted in the election, but there is no credible evidence from experts to back up that assertion. Trump also meets with union leaders.
  • Jan. 24: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responds to Trump's voter-fraud claim: "He believes what he believes."
  • Jan. 25: Trump signs border-wall and sanctuary-city executive actions.
  • Jan. 26: Mexico's president cancels visit to meet with Trump.
  • Jan. 27: Trump signs his immigration/travel ban and holds press conference with British Prime Minister May.
  • Jan. 29: Trump-ordered military raid in Yemen results in the death of one SEAL Team 6 member and the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki. "Almost everything went wrong," a senior military official told NBC News.
  • Jan. 30: Trump fires the acting U.S. attorney general who directed Justice lawyers not to defend Trump's travel ban.
  • Jan. 31: Trump unveils his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.
  • Feb. 1: Trump administration puts Iran "on notice," as the Washington Post reports on a testy call the president has with Australia's prime minister.
  • Feb. 2: The Trump White House announces that the expansion of Israeli settlements "may not be helpful in achieving" Middle East peace, and that it will continue to study the issue.
  • Feb. 3: A federal judge appointed by George W. Bush temporarily blocks Trump's immigration/travel ban
  • Feb. 4: Trump blasts this judge. "The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!"
  • Feb: 5: 9th Circuit rejects Trump administration request to immediately restore the travel ban. In pre-Super Bowl interview, Trump appears to equate Russia's political violence under Vladimir Putin to violence in the United States.
  • Feb. 6: In front of U.S. military personnel, Trump declares that the news media doesn't cover terrorist attacks.
  • Feb. 8: Trump criticizes Nordstrom for dropping his daughter's clothing line. "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!"
  • Feb. 9: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously refused to reinstate Trump's travel ban, as Trump retreats on his team's previous hesitance to recognize the "One China" policy.
  • Feb. 10: Trump holds bilateral meeting and press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Abe.
  • Feb. 13: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigns just after the Washington Post first reported that the Justice Department had informed the White House that Flynn could be subject to blackmail; Trump meets with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau.
  • Feb. 14: The New York Times reports that Trump's 2016 campaign "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials."
  • Feb. 15: Trump meets at White House with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, as Labor secretary pick Andy Puzder withdraws his nomination.
  • Feb. 16: Trump gives wide-ranging, combative news conference from the White House.
  • Feb. 17: Trump tweets that news organizations including NBC News and the New York Times are "the enemy of the American People!"
  • Feb. 20: Trump names H.R. McMaster to be his new national security adviser.
  • Feb. 24: Trump addresses CPAC, where he criticizes the news media. Also, White House acknowledges that Chief of Staff Priebus asked FBI to knock down reporting on repeated contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians; GOP Rep. Darrell Issa calls for special prosecutor in Russia probe.
  • Feb. 27: White House releases budget outline calling for a $54 billion increase in military spending -- and offsetting cuts in other non-military spending.
  • Feb. 28: Trump delivers primetime address to Congress.
  • March 1: Washington Post reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russia's envoy twice last year -- which he didn't disclose in his confirmation hearing.
  • March 2: Sessions recuses himself fromany federal inquiries involving Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Trump Cabinet Watch

Eighteen members of Trump cabinet have now won confirmation. This morning, the president tweeted, “It is so pathetic that the Dems have still not approved my full Cabinet. But as NBC's Frank Thorp notes, the Senate has finished all but one of the nominations the Senate could possibly confirm -- with the rest waiting for committee consideration so they can be sent to the Senate floor for a full vote.

  • Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson CONFIRMED
  • Attorney General: Jeff Sessions CONFIRMED
  • Treasury: Steve Mnuchin CONFIRMED
  • Defense: JamesMattis CONFIRMED
  • Homeland: John Kelly CONFIRMED
  • Interior: Ryan Zinke CONFIRMED
  • HHS: Tom Price CONFIRMED
  • HUD: Ben Carson CONFIRMED
  • Education: Betsy DeVos CONFIRMED
  • Commerce: Wilbur Ross CONFIRMED
  • Transportation: Elaine Chao CONFIRMED
  • Labor: Alexander Acosta NOMINATED
  • Agriculture: Sonny Perdue NOMINATED
  • Energy: Rick Perry CONFIRMED
  • Veterans Affairs: David Shulkin CONFIRMED
  • OMB Director: Mick Mulvaney CONFIRMED
  • U.S Trade Representative: Robert Lighthizer NOMINATED
  • UN Ambassador: Nikki Haley CONFIRMED
  • Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt CONFIRMED
  • Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon CONFIRMED
  • CIA Director: Mike Pompeo CONFIRMED

What were other president’s doing on March 3?

Heading to SXSW? So is Chuck!

Hear from him on March 14th at 5 p.m. CT as he explores if big data is destroying the U.S. political system.