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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 — Maybe the biggest political story this August has been President Trump’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with congressional Republicans — all less than a month after the Senate failed to pass its health care effort. Let us count the ways:
- Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., published a book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” that in part criticized Trump, writing that his party is “in denial” about a president who is “erratic,” volatile and has “a seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians”;
- Trump, on Twitter, went after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s inability to pass a health care bill. "Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done”;
- The New York Times later reported that Trump, on August 9, "accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election";
- Numerous Republicans — including Sens. John McCain, Marco Rubio, Tim Scott and Jerry Moran — criticized Trump’s response to Charlottesville, in particular his news conference the Tuesday after the violence;
- On Tuesday in Arizona, Trump took aim at both McCain and Flake, though not by name: "One vote away [from passing health care], I will not mention any names — very presidential. And nobody wants me to mention your other senator, who's weak on border, weak on crime. Nobody knows who the hell he is! See, I haven't mentioned any names, so now everybody's happy." (He called out Flake by name on Twitter the next day, though);
- Also on Tuesday, he threatened a government shutdown if he doesn’t get his border wall, saying: "If we have to close down our government, we're building that wall." A senior administration official tells NBC’s Peter Alexander that Trump is “serious” about the threat. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan pushed back on the idea on Wednesday. “I don't think a government shutdown is necessary, and I don't think most people want to see a government shutdown, ourselves included," Ryan said.
- And Wednesday afternoon, Politico reported that Trump clashed with two other Republican senators, Bob Corker and Thom Tillis, over matters relating to Russia. “Trump expressed frustration over a bipartisan bill sanctioning Russia and tried to convince Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) that it wasn't good policy... Trump dialed up Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on Aug. 7... Tillis is working with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) on a bill designed to protect Robert Mueller, the independent counsel investigating the president's Russia connections, from any attempt by Trump to fire him.
- And this morning, Trump tweeted: "I requested that Mitch M & Paul R tie the Debt Ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill (which just passed) for easy approval. They ... didn't do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy-now a mess!"
Why does this deteriorating relationship matter? As NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell and Alex Moe write, it could imperil the GOP’s fall legislative agenda, which includes raising the debt limit, funding the government, passing a budget and beginning the work on tax reform.
Caldwell and Moe add, “By Wednesday evening … the White House put out a statement that said Trump and McConnell ‘remain united on many shared priorities, including middle class tax relief, strengthening the military, constructing a southern border wall, and other important issues.’ The statement also promised the two would hold previously scheduled meetings this month.”
But as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza observes, it’s hard to remember the last time a White House had to release a statement like that concerning the Senate majority leader of its own party.
Teleprompter Trump vs. Scripted Trump
Continuing our look at how President Trump’s tone changes depending on if he’s using a teleprompter or not, Trump’s speech yesterday to the American Legion in Reno, Nev., was via teleprompter.
The New York Times: "The morning after he delivered an aggrieved and impromptu defense of his comments on the violence in Charlottesville, Va., Mr. Trump spoke in a more measured tone to the national convention of the American Legion, telling its members that “we are not defined by the color of our skin,” and that the country will overcome its challenges by reaffirming its common values."
The paper adds, "[S]uch contrasts have become a recurring motif of his presidency: Mr. Trump has toggled between Teleprompter Trump and Unplugged Trump every day since the deadly clashes in Virginia, leaving Washington and the rest of the nation with a chronic case of rhetorical whiplash.”
WSJ: White House readies guidance for military transgender ban
The Wall Street Journal reports on the White House’s expected guidelines for implementing the administration’s ban on transgender people in the military.
“The White House is expected to send guidance to the Pentagon in coming days on how to implement a new administration ban on transgender people in the military, issuing a policy that will allow Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to consider a service member's ability to deploy in deciding whether to kick them out of the military,” the paper writes.
More: “The White House memo also directs the Pentagon to deny admittance to transgender individuals and to stop spending on medical treatment regimens for those currently serving, according to U.S. officials familiar with the document. The 2½-page memo gives Mr. Mattis six months to prepare to fully implement the new ban, according to these officials."
The latest in the Alabama Senate race
As new polling shows a significant lead for Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court justice is accusing Mitch McConnell of encouraging Democrats to vote in the upcoming September 26 runoff in order to boost Luther Strange.
(The charge appears to be a reference to Thad Cochran’s courting of black Democrats during a 2014 runoff, but Moore didn’t offer any evidence to support his claim that the same strategy is being mulled by Strange backers now. )
Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Doug Jones says that the fate of Confederate monuments should be up to counties and cities.
Virginia governor’s race gets even more heated over Confederate monuments
We noted earlier this month that the Virginia governor’s race was shaping up to be a referendum on Confederate monuments — and now it’s getting nasty.
The Virginia GOP tweeted yesterday that Democratic nominee Ralph Northam “has turned his back on his own family's heritage in demanding monument removal.”
Northam, who recently discovered that some of his ancestors owned slaves, shot back: “I feel fine about turning my back on white supremacy. How does @EdWGillespie feel about the president's position?”
After Northam’s response, the Virginia GOP took down its tweets and apologized — and GOP nominee Ed Gillespie’s campaign said it agreed with the party’s decision to take back its words.
Still, it’s an ugly fight in a state rocked by the violence in Charlottesville less than two weeks ago. (Don’t forget, by the way, how close Gillespie came to losing the nomination back in June to Corey Stewart, who made the preservation of Confederate monuments a centerpiece of his campaign.)
First Read will be off tomorrow. We’ll be back in your inboxes on Monday morning.