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Trump Returns to a Trio of Controversies

Trump might want to talk tax reform and trade when he returns to work on Wednesday, but those aren't the stories making headlines.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Danang International Airport in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017 to travel to Hanoi, Vietnam.Andrew Harnik / 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.

WASHINGTON — President Trump was giddy aboard Air Force One on his way back to the United States today. “It's been a really great 12 days,” he told reporters. “And I made a lot of great friends.”

But when he lands back in the U.S. — first in Hawaii this afternoon, then in D.C. later tonight — he returns to three controversies that he and his party are facing: 1) his son Donald Trump Jr.’s correspondence with WikiLeaks during the 2016 general election, 2) his Justice Department that’s considering whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton and 3) Roy Moore in Alabama.

1. On Monday night, the Atlantic reported that WikiLeaks actively solicited Donald Trump Jr. during the height of the 2016 general election, and Trump Jr. sometimes wrote back. “‘Hiya, it’d be great if you guys could comment on/push this story,’ WikiLeaks suggested [on Oct. 3, 2016], 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.’”

Then on Oct. 12, 2016: “‘Strongly suggest your dad tweets this link if he mentions us,’ WikiLeaks went on, pointing Trump Jr. to the link, which it said would help Trump’s followers dig through the trove of stolen documents and find stories. ‘There’s many great stories the press are missing and we’re sure some of your follows [sic] will find it,’ WikiLeaks went on. ‘Btw we just released Podesta Emails Part 4.’” (Donald Trump Jr. didn’t respond, but his father tweeted this message 15 minutes later: “Very little pick-up by the dishonest media of incredible information provided by WikiLeaks. So dishonest! Rigged system!”)

And on Election Day: “‘Hi Don if your father “loses” we think it is much more interesting if he DOES NOT conceed [sic] and spends time CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred—as he has implied that he might do.’”

2. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered senior federal prosecutors to evaluate whether a special counsel should be appointed to investigate concerns raised by Republicans, including alleged unlawful dealings by the Clinton Foundation and the sale of a uranium company,” NBC’s Pete Williams and Ken Dilanian write. “In a letter to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said the Justice Department lawyers would make recommendations to Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about whether an investigation should be opened or expanded, or whether a special counsel should be appointed, related to a host of issues of concern to Republicans.”

Sessions, who has recused himself from matters involving the 2016 campaign, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at 10:00 am ET.

3. “An Alabama woman on Monday accused Roy Moore, the state's Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, of sexual assault, alleging that he attacked her behind the restaurant where she worked when she was 16 and he was 30,” per NBC’s Jane Timm. “Beverly Young Nelson, who will be 56 on Tuesday, is the fifth woman to accuse Moore of making romantic or sexual advances toward them when they were teenagers, and the first to allege assault. The previous accusations were made in The Washington Post last week.”

Trump might want to talk tax reform and trade when he returns to work on Wednesday. But those probably won’t be the stories everyone else is talking about.

Why Trump Jr.’s correspondence with WikiLeaks is such a big deal: It appears to be one degree of separation from the Trump campaign coordinating/colluding/working with Russia

Did the Russian government use WikiLeaks to disseminate the hacked DNC and Podesta emails? If the answer is yes – and the U.S. intelligence community say it is (“We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks”) — then Trump Jr.’s correspondence with the organization appears to be one degree of separation from Russia.

Remember, the U.S. intel community said Russia intended to discredit the election results if Clinton had won — exactly what WikiLeaks was instructing Trump Jr to do. “ProKremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity,” the intel community wrote back in January.

Also remember that Trump mentioned “WikiLeaks” 145 times during the final month of the 2016 campaign, per NBC’s count.

  • Oct. 31 in Warren, Mich.: "Did you see where, on WikiLeaks, it was announced that they were paying protesters to be violent, $1,500?... Did you see another one, another one came in today? This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove"

  • Nov. 2 in Orlando, Fla.: "WikiLeaks just came out with a new one, just a little a while ago, it's just been shown that a rigged system with more collusion, possibly illegal, between the Department of Justice, the Clinton campaign and the State Department"

  • Nov. 4 in Wilmington, Ohio: "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks."

And remember this Wall Street Journal story: “The chief executive of Cambridge Analytica contacted the founder of WikiLeaks to ask him to share Hillary Clinton-related emails at the same time that people familiar with the matter say the British data-analytics firm had begun working for President Donald Trump’s campaign.”

Trump Jr.’s lawyer released this statement about his client’s correspondence with WikiLeaks, per NBC’s Kristen Welker:

"Over the last several months, we have worked cooperatively with each of the committees and have voluntarily turned over thousands of documents in response to their requests. Putting aside the question as to why or by whom such documents, provided to Congress under promises of confidentiality, have been selectively leaked, we can say with confidence that we have no concerns about these documents and any questions raised about them have been easily answered in the appropriate forum."

Why it would be extraordinary — and potentially scandalous — if the Trump Justice Department recommends a special prosecutor to go after Hillary Clinton

Back on November 3, before he departed on his Asia trip, Trump told radio host Larry O'Connor: "You know, the saddest thing is that because I'm the President of the United States I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I'm not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I'm not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing and I am very frustrated by it."

Trump added, “I look at what's happening with the Justice Department, why aren't they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her — the dossier, and the kind of money? I don't know. Is it possible that they paid $12.4 million for the dossier and how is it that — which is total phony, fake."

And: “I'll be honest, I'm very unhappy with it, that the Justice Department isn't going — now, maybe they are. But you know, as President — and I think you understand this — as a President, you are not supposed to be involved in that process. But hopefully they are doing something, and at some point, maybe we're going to all have it out.”

That is the context behind the news that the Trump Justice Department is weighing whether to appoint a special prosecutor to look at Clinton. Now Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes believes the Justice Department’s letter sets up the process to allow its career prosecutors to DECLINE investigating Clinton.

But to investigate your political opponent only further erodes trust in our government and democracy.

Why Doug Jones might now be the favorite in Alabama’s Senate contest

After the last few days of news from Alabama, it’s time for the political world to start viewing Democrat Doug Jones as the favorite in the December 12 election – unless something else extraordinary happens. Let us count the ways:

  • The race will likely be a low-turnout affair two weeks before Christmas (with no other contest on the ballot);

  • Democratic voters – from Virginia and New Jersey to Kansas and South Carolina – are energized and turning out;

  • Jones has owned the TV airwaves over the past month (with ads that make it hard to tell he’s a Democrat);

  • Jones will have more money than Republican Roy Moore;

  • There won’t be GOP cavalry to the rescue (like we saw in GA-6);

  • And Republicans like NRSC head Cory Gardner are saying this about Moore: "He does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate."

The Cook Political Report has changed its rating of the race – from Lean Republican to Toss Up.

And here’s NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald: “Alabama Democrats have a message for out-of-state allies eager to help in the state's Senate race: Thanks, but no thanks. ‘I tell them to stay home,’ said Giles Perkins, the former executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party. ‘This is an Alabama race, and we will decide it here.’”