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Trump is striving — but struggling — to control the narrative

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: President Trump holds a law enforcement roundtable on sanctuary cities at the White House
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on March 20.Kevin Dietsch / Pool via EPA

WASHINGTON — Throughout his career and the first 14 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has always worked to manage, frame and preempt the national narrative about himself. But in the last 72 hours, a series of major political news stories have shown the limits of his ability to control his image and dominate the news cycle with his own version of events.

On Friday, Trump made — and then, within hours, reversed — a threat to veto a $1.3 trillion spending bill after facing accusations from his own base that he caved to Democrats and bungled his best chance to win full funding for his border wall. On Saturday, Trump was silent and on the sidelines as huge crowds around the country rallied in support of gun control legislation, promising to punish his party for inaction on the issue in November. On Sunday morning, despite a flurry of Trump’s tweets on the subject,reports of disarray on his legal team grewafter two lawyers said to be joining, Joseph diGenova and his wife Victoria Toensing, dropped out, citing conflicts. And of course — most strikingly — on Sunday night, adult film star Stormy Daniels outlined her alleged affair with Trump in detail on national TV as a president famous for striking back at his adversaries was forced to say nothing in response.

It’s still not clear that the Daniels allegations (more on those below) will have a lasting effect on Trump’s standing; after all, the president was elected despite a wealth of evidence about boorish treatment of women and past infidelities. But, as effective as Trump has often been at creating distractions and trying to discredit his detractors, the weekend still showed how his preferred narrative about his presidency can be overwhelmed by outside forces.

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What we learned from the Stormy Daniels interview

Here are some of the big takeaways from Stormy Daniels’ interview on “60 Minutes.”

  • She claims that she was physically threatened by someone after reports about the affair first surfaced in 2011: “I was in a parking lot, going to a fitness class with my infant daughter. T-- taking, you know, the seats facing backwards in the backseat, diaper bag, you know, gettin' all the stuff out. And a guy walked up on me and said to me, "Leave Trump alone. Forget the story." And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, ‘That's a beautiful little girl. It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom." And then he was gone.’”
  • She says that she would recognize the person who made the threat, but did not go to the police because she was frightened after the incident: “Even now, all these years later. If he walked in this door right now, I would instantly know.”
  • She says that she understood the $130,000 payment from Michael Cohen to be “hush money” and that she took it primarily because she was concerned for her safety: “The story was coming out again. I was concerned for my family and their safety…. I think the fact that I didn't even negotiate, I just quickly said yes to this very, you know, strict contract. And what most people will agree with me extremely low number. It's all the proof I need.”
  • She says that she did not want to have sex with Trump or find him attractive, but she also does not see herself as a part of the #MeToo movement. “This is not a 'me too.' I was not a victim. I've never said I was a victim. I think trying to use me to further someone else's agenda does horrible damage to people who are true victims.”

Is VA chief David Shulkin the next to go?

Another big story from the weekend was the continuing speculation about possible upheaval at the White House. Speaking on ABC, Trump confidante and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy said that Trump is “expecting to make one or two major changes to his government very soon,” later suggesting that one of those changes is likely to be the ousting of VA Secretary David Shulkin.

The AP reports that three administration officials say Shulkin is on the way out, with one putting the chances of him being pushed out in the next few days at “50-50.” These administration departures have become so frequent that they often aren’t the biggest or even second or third biggest news story on any given day, but it’s worth the periodic reminder that the level of upheaval at the upper echelons of this administration is unprecedented.

Republican Ryan Costello won’t run again in PA-6

Here’s another cost to Trump’s chaotic management style and inability to focus the media narrative on his administration’s successes: He’s not doing the rank-and-file in his own party any favors as they try to keep their jobs. In an interview Sunday night with NBC’s Kasie Hunt, Pennsylvania Republican Ryan Costello confirmed that he won’t seek reelection after all. With the newly drawn district lines, Costello would have faced a very difficult race anyway, and his decision moves the race from a tossup to a likely Democratic pickup, according to the Cook Political Report.

But don’t miss how Costello described the challenge of trying to highlight his efforts to help his district in the age of Trump. “Because we’re talking about porn stars and the President rather than tax policy or what we need to get done by the end of the year or what should’ve been in the omnibus … I have a bill to bring back cost sharing reductions and create a reinsurance plan for 2 years, which will reduce health insurance costs for 9 million Americans who don’t get a subsidy … and it’s very difficult for me to get that message out because we’re talking about Stormy Daniels, or it was McCabe, before that it was Rex Tillerson and where he heard the news that he was fired, and just one thing after another. It is deeply frustrating, I will certainly say that.”

The gun control rallies were a big deal. Will the momentum last until November?

And finally,the gun control rallies that blanketed the nation on Saturday were remarkable for their intensity and size, with young people leading the charge by promising to oust members of Congress who fail to act on gun safety. The big question we have is whether the intensity of these young voters is sustained and reflected at the polls in November.

Our latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll — taken earlier this month — showed that Democrats overall have an enthusiasm advantage heading into the midterms (with 60 percent reporting the highest level of interest in the midterms, compared to 54 percent of Republicans), but young voters are still lagging. Just 37 percent of those 18-34 report the highest level of interest in the November election — one of the lowest groups surveyed.