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Trump Still Can't Shake the Russia Story

Trump’s business associates — in the midst of the presidential campaign — were actively trying to make deals in Russia.
Image: President Trump Welcomes
President Donald Trump at the White House Aug. 28, 2017 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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.

Trump still can’t shake the Russia story

The headlines remain fixed on Hurricane Harvey and now North Korea’s missile launch over Japan. But a flurry of stories over the last two days also has brought the Trump-Russia story back in the news.

The top takeaway: Trump’s business associates — in the midst of the presidential campaign — were actively trying to make deals in Russia.

  • The New York Times: “A business associate of President Trump promised in [November 2015] to engineer a real estate deal with the aid of the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, that he said would help Mr. Trump win the presidency... ‘Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,’ [Felix] Sater wrote in an email. ‘I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.’”
  • The Washington Post: “While Donald Trump was running for president in late 2015 and early 2016, his company was pursuing a plan to develop a massive Trump Tower in Moscow, according to several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers... Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.”
  • More from the Washington Post: “A top executive from Donald Trump’s real estate company [lawyer Michael Cohen] emailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman during the U.S. presidential campaign last year [in mid-January 2016] to ask for help advancing a stalled Trump Tower development project in Moscow, according to documents submitted to Congress on Monday.”
  • In a statement to NBC’s Ken Dilanian, Cohen said it shouldn’t be surprising that the Trump’s business was trying to make international deals. "It should come as no surprise that, over four decades, the Trump Organization has received and reviewed countless real estate development opportunities, both domestic and international. The Trump Moscow proposal was simply one of many development opportunities that the Trump Organization considered and ultimately rejected. In late January 2016, I abandoned the Moscow proposal because I lost confidence that the prospective licensee would be able to obtain the real estate, financing, and government approvals necessary to bring the proposal to fruition. It was a building proposal that did not succeed and nothing more."

Still, given everything else we know — Donald Trump Jr.’s June 9, 2016 meeting with that Kremlin-connected lawyer, Russia’s intervention in the presidential election, and Trump’s ongoing refusal to criticize Russia (as he did again at Monday’s press conference) — it certainly raises eyebrows that Trump’s business associates were trying to make deals in Russia during the campaign.

Mueller’s team wants to know if Trump made a “knowingly false statement” about his son’s June 9, 2016 meeting

And there’s even more Russia-related news. “Federal investigators working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller are keenly focused on President Donald Trump's role in crafting a response to a published article about a meeting between Russians and his son Donald Jr., three sources familiar with the matter told NBC News,” per NBC’s Julia Ainsley and Tom Winter.

More: “At the time, the White House confirmed that Trump had ‘weighed in’ as the response to the Times report was drafted aboard Air Force One on July 8 as the president returned to the U.S. from the G20 meeting in Germany. The Washington Post reported that Trump had ‘dictated’ the response.” And that statement said the meeting “primarily” was about “the adoption of Russian children.”

“By the next day the paper reported that the meeting was scheduled in order to convey damaging information about Hillary Clinton and her campaign — an account that Trump Jr. would confirm in a follow-up statement and in emails that he released publicly.”

“A person familiar with Mueller's strategy said that whether or not Trump made a ‘knowingly false statement’ is now of interest to prosecutors.”

Trump travels to Texas, and it contains some risk

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump head to Texas today to inspect some of the damage from Hurricane Harvey. They arrive in Corpus Christi at 12:25 pm ET, and then they hit Austin at 3:25 pm ET.

“I think that you're going to very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president. And you're going to get your funding. It's a terrible tragedy,” Trump told the Dallas Morning News’ Todd Gillman at yesterday’s news conference.

“Texas is a unique place. It’s a great, great state, great people, and I think you you'll be up and running very, very quickly,” Trump added. “So, yeah, I think you're going to be in fantastic shape. I have already spoken to Congress and everybody feels for you and feels for what you're going through. But at the same time, they have great respect — even additional respect for the state, because you've handled it so well, so brilliantly.”

Our take: With those comments above, you can definitely tell Trump is in full marketing mode. “You’re going to be in fantastic shape.” “You’ve handled it so well, so brilliantly.” But there’s a risk in trying to market a product when it’s not finished. And Harvey’s impact on Texas — and now Louisiana — isn’t finished.

North Korea fires missile over Japan

And it’s just not Hurricane Harvey that’s on Trump’s plate right now. NBC News: “President Donald Trump vowed that the U.S. is ‘100 percent with Japan’ after North Korea fired a missile into its airspace, according to the leader of the Asian ally. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters he spent 40 minutes on the phone with Trump to discuss Monday's launch — which he also described as ‘an unprecedented, serious and significant threat.’”

Trump released this statement earlier this morning: "The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior. Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table."

But don’t forget what ex-White House strategist Steve Bannon told the American Prospect about North Korea: “There's no military solution [to North Korea's nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don't die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don't know what you're talking about, there's no military solution here. They got us."

Bannon is backing Moore in Alabama Senate race

And speaking of Bannon, guess who he’s backing in Alabama’s Republican Senate runoff: Roy Moore. “Just-departed White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is breaking from President Donald Trump in the closely watched Alabama Senate special election,” Politico writes.

“During a closed-door meeting with powerful conservatives in Washington last week, Bannon declared that he's supporting former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore over Trump-endorsed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, according to two people who were present. Bannon, who just over a week ago left the White House to rejoin the conservative website Breitbart News, said that he is looking to activate the conservative base to Moore’s cause.”