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Trump's closing argument is full of conspiracy theories and brute force. And it just might work.

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.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Oct. 17, 2018.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — In the final days of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump campaigned on brute force.

On the Comey letter: “The investigation is the biggest political scandal since Watergate, and it's everybody's hope that justice at last can be delivered,” he said on Oct. 28, 2016.

On the WikiLeaks revelations: “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,” he said on Nov. 4.

When Comey said there was nothing new in those Abedin/Weiner emails: “Right now, [Hillary Clinton] is being protected by a rigged system. It's a totally rigged system. I've been saying it for a long time. You can't review 650,000 new emails in 8 days, you can't do it folks. Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it. The FBI knows it,” he said on Nov. 6 — two days before the presidential election.

And history appears to be repeating itself in 2018, at least in how Trump was campaigning last night in Montana on conspiracy theories, Hillary Clinton, violence and brute force.

  • “Look, lot of rigged things going on. A lot of rigged things going on — just ask Bernie Sanders. Think things are rigged, Bernie? I can tell you about rigging, but we fought like nobody every fought before,” Trump said last night.
  • “A lot of money's been passing through to come up and try and get to the border by Election Day, because they think that's a negative for us,” he added. “They wanted that caravan, and there are those who say that caravan didn't just happen. It didn't just happen. A lot of reasons that caravan — 4,000 people”
  • “Oh yeah, great unifier, crooked Hillary, great unifier. [“Lock Her Up” chants] Deep state, they don’t even look at her. You can never forget Benghazi, all the other things, 33,000 emails, a subpoena… deletes 33,000 emails and she acid washes, she acid washes, expensive process, called acid washing.”
  • “Never wrestle him, any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy, he’s my guy,” Trump said when mentioning Rep. Greg Gianforte, who assaulted a reporter last year.

And like in 2016, this pure brute force from Trump could work, because there is no equal response from Democrats. If the next 18 days are going to be like last night, Trump’s message will be the dominant one. Are Democratic TV ads on health care, bipartisanship and “check and balance” enough to counter Trump on the campaign trail?

If you woke up from a coma and watched Trump’s rally in Montana last night, you’d conclude that the president and his party were off the rails. Instead, given the polling and Senate momentum we’ve seen for the GOP over the past month, it appears that Trump is actually putting the train back on track.

Trump praises GOP congressman for assaulting reporter

You think if you were campaigning against a Democratic “mob,” you wouldn’t praise someone who admitted to assaulting a reporter. But here we are, via NBC’s Jonathan Allen:

“President Donald Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., Thursday for physically assaulting a reporter during a House race last year. ‘Never wrestle him,’ Trump said of Gianforte at a campaign rally here. ‘Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my guy.’”

“Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault last year after Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, said the then-candidate ‘body-slammed’ him. Gianforte was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, 20 hours of anger-management counseling and payment of a $385 fine. As part of a civil settlement, he apologized for responding with physical violence to a question Jacobs asked about health care policy.”

“Cheered on by the crowd at a rally set against the colorful backdrop of a Big Sky sunset, Trump added that he didn't think at the time that the episode would hurt Gianforte with Montana voters — ‘I think it might help him,’ Trump recalled thinking. ‘And it did.’”

Trump’s allies start whisper campaign to smear Khashoggi

Speaking of how the president talks about violence against reporters… “Hard-line Republicans and conservative commentators are mounting a whispering campaign against Jamal Khashoggi that is designed to protect President Trump from criticism of his handling of the dissident journalist’s alleged murder by operatives of Saudi Arabia — and support Trump’s continued aversion to a forceful response to the oil-rich desert kingdom,” the Washington Post reports.

More: “In recent days, a cadre of conservative House Republicans allied with Trump has been privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of Khashoggi, highlighting his association with the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and raising conspiratorial questions about his work decades ago as an embedded reporter covering Osama bin Laden, according to four GOP officials involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly."

Inspector general faults Zinke for travels with wife

Politico: “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sought to skirt or alter department policies to justify his taxpayer-funded trips with his wife, the agency’s inspector general said in the latest critical report on travel practices by President Donald Trump's Cabinet members. Zinke's maneuvers included pressing Interior staffers to research whether his wife, Lola, could become a volunteer at the agency, a move the employees said was designed to enable her to travel with him at taxpayer expense.”

AZ-SEN: McSally talks Trump, health care

On the campaign trail in Arizona, NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard asked GOP Senate candidate questions on Trump and her 2017 vote to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Hillyard: When the president comes to town [today], will you encourage him to not refer to another woman as “horseface”?

McSally: Come on, Vaughn.

Hillyard: There are a lot of young Arizonans—

McSally: I didn’t agree with that. I thought it was inappropriate, okay. I thought it was inappropriate. That’s an absurd question.

Hillyard: You don’t regret that [health-care] vote?

McSally: Look, it wasn’t a perfect bill. I advocated for a lot of things in that bill. I advocated to make sure there was $60 billion more allotted to Medicaid when it was being pushed to the states. I personally advocated and led the fight for the $90 billion extra dollars for tax credits for age 50 to 64 because I was concerned as we’re moving away from Obamacare toward a more stable market it’s going to take some time for that market to appear. And I didn’t want age 50 to 64 to be hurt. And so that’s $90 billion, an extra $2,000 in tax credits. I advocated for an extra $15 billion for maternity care and mental health coverage, and another $8 billion for those with pre-existing conditions. So I’m going to continue to be constructive on these complex issues.”

OH-SEN: Sherrod Brown’s camp threatens legal action against GOP opponent

The dispatch from NBC’s Shaquille Brewster: “Sen. Sherrod Brown's campaign threatened to pursue legal action against his Republican opponent Rep. Jim Renacci Thursday night, after Renacci released a statement on behalf of a woman who says Brown assaulted her in the late 80's… ‘Just hours after a cease and desist was sent to Jim Renacci informing him that if he chose to continue making unsubstantiated and false claims about something that never happened he would face legal ramifications, now Jim Renacci’s former business partner and friend, in coordination with Renacci’s campaign, has put out a statement with nothing more than further anonymous and unsubstantiated claims,’ Brown's campaign spokesperson Preston Maddock said in a statement.”

“Renacci released a statement at the bottom of the news release writing, ‘While the extensive and well substantiated allegations and court records detailing Sherrod Brown’s long history of engaging in acts of domestic violence have already disqualified him from continuing to serve in the United States Senate, these additional allegations from a second accuser clearly raise even more questions and alarm over Sherrod Brown’s conduct towards women.”

Looking at the ad spending in 11 of the most competitive Senate races

Democrats hold the ad-spending advantage in eight of the 11 most competitive Senate races, while Republicans lead in three, according to data from Advertising Analytics. Note: This spending is for the general election only (so after the primaries), and it’s through October 18. The information in parenthesis is the largest overall advertiser in each state.

AZ-SEN: Dem $17.8 million, GOP $16.7 million ($7.7 million by Defend Arizona)

FL-SEN: GOP $37.3 million, Dem $29.2 million ($22.6 million by Scott campaign)

IN-SEN: Dem $27.1 million, GOP $25.1 million ($10.7 million by Senate Majority PAC)

MO-SEN: GOP $25.8 million, Dem, $25.2 million ($11.2 million by McCaskill campaign)

MT-SEN: Dem $13.4 million, GOP $10.5 million ($4.3 million by Tester campaign)

NV-SEN: Dem $28.3 million, GOP $23.1 million ($10.0 million by Rosen campaign)

NJ-SEN: GOP $14.9 million, Dem $7.7 million ($12.0 million by Hugin campaign)

ND-SEN: Dem $9.6 million, GOP $8.6 million ($3.8 million by Heitkamp campaign)

TX-SEN: Dem $16.5 million, GOP $12.7 million ($16.5 million by O’Rourke campaign)

WV-SEN: Dem $12.5 million, GOP $12.1 million ($6.1 million by Senate Majority PAC)

WI-SEN: Dem $6.6 million, GOP $4.0 million ($5.7 million by Baldwin campaign)