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, allies find some pain relief. But there’s still no cure for their problems
The last couple of days have delivered some relatively good news for the Trump White House and congressional Republicans, especially before Congress departs on its recess later this week. The Susan Rice storyline has allowed Trump and his allies to muddy the waters in the president’s month-old claim that Barack Obama wire-tapped him; the health-care talks have suggested that repeal-and-replace maybe isn’t entirely dead after all; and Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation is still on track, despite the Democrats’ filibuster effort. But here’s the bad news:
- Trump’s Obama-wiretapped-me claims still aren’t true, and the Russia storyline isn’t going away. (Who actually thinks Susan Rice testifying to Congress -- maybe on Michael Flynn’s phone calls -- is a long-term positive development for the White House?)
- Passing health-care reform seems as unrealistic as it did two weeks ago (House Freedom Caucus members and GOP moderates still aren’t on the same page, and Senate Republicans haven’t moved an inch).
- And while Gorsuch has been a unifying force for Republicans of all stripes, GOP fissures (on Russia, Devin Nunes, health care) will return to the spotlight after he’s confirmed.
So while Trump & Co. may have found some pain relief for their political problems, there’s no cure in sight for what’s truly ailing them.
Who’s to blame for the chemical-weapon attack in Syria? Assad? Russia? Syrian rebels? Obama?
The statement that President Trump released yesterday blamed both Assad and Obama. “Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.” But this response from the Russians could put Trump in a difficult spot. “Russia on Wednesday blamed the poisonous gas contamination that activists say killed at least 83 people — including 25 children — on a leak from a chemical weapons cache hit by Syrian government air strikes, per NBC News. “Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said Tuesday morning's deadly leak came from a rebel ‘chemical warfare munitions’ workshop that had been struck.”
So the Russians are saying the chemical weapons belonged to the rebels. Does Trump agree? And how much is he willing to blame Russia for what happened in Syria? Those would be fascinating questions for Trump at his 1:10 pm ET news conference today. By the way, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called out Russia in his statement yesterday. "Those who defend and support [Assad], including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions," Tillerson said.
Two things complicate Trump’s blame-game against Obama
One, just a week ago, the Trump administration pretty much said it was leaving Assad alone in Syria. Here was White House Press Secretary last Friday:
Q: And then can you clear up where the President stands on whether Bashar Assad is the legitimate President of Syria?MR. SPICER: Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now. We lost a lot of opportunity the last administration with respect to Assad. And I think that our statement that both U.N. Ambassador Haley gave yesterday and Secretary of State Tillerson reflects the reality that it's now up to the Syrian people. We had an opportunity and we need to focus on now defeating ISIS.
Is that still the policy from this administration — to leave Assad alone? Two, Trump himself urged Obama NOT to use force against Syria back in 2013. “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” he tweeted in Sept. 2013.
Trump’s North Korea problem
The other international trouble for the Trump administration — North Korea. "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment," Secretary of State Tillerson said in a pretty odd statement yesterday. Make no mistake, this North Korea problem is TERRIBLE timing for Trump’s upcoming meeting with China.
Susan Rice speaks
“Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday flatly denied that she sought to improperly ‘unmask’ Trump campaign officials whose conversations were caught on surveillance by U.S. intelligence services,” NBC’s Ken Dilanian and Corky Siemaszko write. “‘The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,’ Rice said in an exclusive interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell. ''That's absolutely false.’ Rice added that it's not unusual to request the identities of people caught on intelligence surveillance.”
More: “‘There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided, just a U.S. person, and sometimes in that context in order to understand the importance of that report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that U.S. official was,’ she said, without going into specifics.”
The public increasingly likes Obamacare — and doesn’t like the GOP’s replacement plan
Here's Gallup: “Fifty-five percent of Americans now support the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a major turnaround from five months ago when 42% approved and 53% disapproved.” And here’s the Kaiser Family Foundation: Two-thirds of Americans say it’s a “good thing” — including nearly four-in-ten Republicans — say that the Republican Obamacare alternative was not passed last month.
Did Gorsuch improperly borrow from others’ writings?
NBC’s Frank Thorp reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last night “officially filed a cloture motion to end debate on Judge Gorsuch's nomination, setting up a procedural vote for Thursday that would require 60 votes to end debate and move to a final vote on his nomination. Because of Democrats' plans to filibuster that motion (deny Republicans the 60 votes needed), that motion will fail, and Republicans plan to use the so-called 'nuclear option' to change that threshold to 51 votes.”
Meanwhile, here’s the latest controversy surrounding Gorsuch: “Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch copied the structure and language used by several authors and failed to cite source material in his book and an academic article,” Politico says. “The documents show that several passages from the tenth chapter of his 2006 book, ‘The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,’ read nearly verbatim to a 1984 article in the Indiana Law Journal. In several other instances in that book and an academic article published in 2000, Gorsuch borrowed from the ideas, quotes and structures of scholarly and legal works without citing them.” The Trump White House issued this statement: “There is only one explanation for this baseless, last-second smear of Judge Gorsuch: those desperate to justify the unprecedented filibuster of a well-qualified and mainstream nominee to the Supreme Court.”
At 12:10 pm ET, President Trump meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan… And at 1:10 pm ET, the two men hold a press conference in the Rose Garden.