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Trump's wrecking ball tears through NATO

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 Donald Trump’s Day 2 at the NATO summit in Brussels didn’t exactly go much better than Day 1.

“President Trump upended the NATO summit here Thursday by calling an emergency meeting of leaders and threatening that if all member countries do not immediately increase their defense spending commitments, the United States would go it alone, according to diplomats with knowledge of the private discussions,” The Washington Post writes. NBC’s Hallie Jackson and Geoff Bennett also report, according to two officials familiar with the discussions, that Trump warned the allies — do more or the United States will do its own thing.

When Trump was asked at a news conference this morning if he had threatened to pull out of NATO and if he could do so without Congress’ approval, he replied, “I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary and the people have stepped up today like they’ve never stepped up before. And remember the word, $33 billion more they’re paying.” Later, French President Macron said that Trump never threatened to withdraw from NATO, but Macron also denied that NATO allies agreed to boost their defense spending beyond their previous commitment, per the AP.

Got all of that?

Nearly 18 months into his presidency, maybe the best way to view Trump’s time in office has been as a wrecking ball. He’s taken a wrecking ball to:

  • NATO (“Billions of additional dollars are being spent by NATO countries since my visit last year, at my request, but it isn’t nearly enough. U.S. spends too much. Europe’s borders are BAD! Pipeline dollars to Russia are not acceptable!” he tweeted last night).
  • The G-7 last month (after calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“very dishonest & weak”).
  • The immigration debate in the U.S. (“Well I have a solution, tell people not to come to this country illegally, that's the solution,” Trump said on Tuesday after being asked about his administration not meeting a deadline to unite migrant families. “Don't come to our country illegally! Come like other people do, come legally”).
  • Political discourse (“Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an extraordinarily low IQ person…”).
  • Views on the media (“75 percent of those people are downright dishonest,” he said in Montana last week).
  • Institutions like the CIA, the FBI and the Justice Department (“As I head out to a very important NATO meeting, I see that FBI Lover/Agent Lisa Page is dodging a Subpoena & is refusing to show up and testify” he tweeted this morning).
  • Trade with allies and adversaries.
  • The Affordable Care Act.
  • The Iran nuclear deal.
  • The Paris climate accord.

Despite his reputation as a builder during his days in real estate, Trump’s tenure so far has been more of a destroyer than a builder. “No deal on immigration. No deal on health care. No deal on gun control. No deal on spending cuts. No deal on Nafta. No deal on China trade. No deal on steel and aluminum imports. No deal on Middle East peace. No deal on the Qatar blockade. No deal on Syria. No deal on Russia. No deal on Iran. No deal on climate change. No deal on Pacific trade,” the New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote last month — and that was before the Trump administration’s talks with North Korea turned into a debacle.

So much for "The Art of the Deal." Instead, how about "The Art of the Smash?"

It’s hard to give Trump the benefit of the doubt that this ISN’T about Putin

Of course, other American presidents have asked NATO members to contribute more to their defense budgets. And other American presidents have clashed with allies (remember the fallout from the Iraq war?).

But it’s really hard to give Trump the benefit of the doubt that his demands at the NATO summit — plus the confusion he sowed in Brussels — aren’t intended to help Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

When Trump was asked at the news conference if he will recognize Crimea as part of Russia, he responded:

“Well that's an interesting question because long before I got here, President Obama allowed that to happen. That was on his watch, not on my watch. You know, people like to say, ‘Oh, Crimea.’ But the fact is, they built the bridges to Crimea. They just opened a big bridge that was started years ago. They built, I think, a submarine port substantially added billions of dollars. So, that was on Barack Obama's watch. That was not on Trump's watch. Would I have allowed it to happen? No. I would not have allowed it to happen. But he did allow it to happen, so that was his determination. What will happen with Crimea from this point on, that I can't tell you, but I'm not happy about Crimea, but again, that was Barack Obama's watch, not Trump's watch.”

And when asked if he will get along with Putin next week, Trump answered:

“Well he’s a competitor. He’s been very nice to me the times that I met him. I’ve been nice to him. He’s a competitor. Somebody was saying is he an enemy? No, he’s not my enemy. IS he a friend? No I don’t know him well enough. But the couple of times that I’ve gotten to meet him, we got along very well. You saw that. I hope we get along well. I think we get along well. But ultimately he’s a competitor. He’s representing Russia. I’m representing the United States. So in a sense, we’re competitors, not a question of friend or enemies. He’s not my enemy. And hopefully someday maybe he’ll be a friend, it could happen, but I just don’t know him very well. Met him a couple of times and when I did meet him, most of you people were there.”

Again, Trump has earned the skepticism about his relationship — and rhetoric — towards Putin.

Democrats are struggling on a unified message against Kavanaugh

The New York Times: “Democrats who once saw health care and abortion as their best lines of attack against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, are recalibrating their approach to go after him for his view that a sitting president should not have to answer questions in a criminal case, much less face indictment.”

Now we’ve written that Kavanaugh’s 2009 law review article — arguing that a sitting president shouldn’t be distracted by civil lawsuits or criminal investigations while in office Trump’s wrecking ball tears through NATO — could receive A LOT of attention if there’s a significant development in the Mueller probe in the next couple of months.

But that they’ve moved from abortion and health care to executive power suggests that Democrats are struggling on a unified message against Kavanaugh.

Beto O’Rourke raised more than $10 million in the last quarter

Per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard, Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke announced raising more than $10.4 million in the second quarter in Texas’ Senate contest, and he has more than $14 million in the bank.

The question we have: How will he use this money? The difference between O’Rourke losing to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz by 10 points — or 4 or 5 points — is arguably the difference between Democrats winning or losing the competitive House seats in TX-7 (Houston area), TX-23 (San Antonio area) and TX-32 (Dallas).

Congressional Leadership Fund raised $51 million last quarter

Finally, the Congressional Leadership Fund — the top GOP Super PAC for House races — announced this morning that it raised $51 million last year (more than it raised the entire 2016 cycle), and it has $71 cash on hand.