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Trump's War With the Intelligence Community Is His Biggest Yet

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: Trump walks along the west wing colonnade on his way to the Oval Office
President Donald Trump walks along the west wing colonnade on his way to the Oval Office at the White House on Jan. 26, 2017 in Washington.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Trump’s fight with the intel community

Less than a month in office, President Trump has engaged in plenty of fights already — with the courts, Mexico, the media, and even Nordstrom. But his emerging fight with the U.S. intelligence community (over Russia and leaks) might be his biggest fight yet.

On the one hand, you have the New York Times reporting that Trump is planning to appoint an ally who has little experience in intelligence matters “to lead a broad review” of the intelligence agencies. “The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Mr. Trump during the campaign and since he became president,” the Times says.

And on the other hand, you have the Wall Street Journal writing that U.S. intelligence officials “have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised.” (The White House and Director of National Intelligence have both disputed this account.)

And it sets up a remarkable showdown

Of course, we knew this fight was coming — given Trump’s complaints against the intel community during the transition, and after recently departed Michael Flynn fed Trump the line that the intel community was politicized.

Still, it’s a remarkable development. Think about it: The day after the New York Times reports that Trump’s presidential campaign had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials, the same paper writes that Trump is putting an ally — with little experience in intelligence matters — to lead a review of the U.S. intelligence community.

We get that Trump is trying to crack down on leaks; Barack Obama was frustrated by them, too. But what is the bigger story here — that Russians had contacts with Trump’s campaign, or the leaks about these contacts? Or that Russians interfered in the 2016 election, or that this interference was leaked to the press? It sure seems like Trump and his team are less bothered by the news than who’s leaking the news.

Trump denounces leaks — but once used to love them

This morning, President Trump took to Twitter to denounce the leaks. “Leaking, and even illegal classified leaking, has been a big problem in Washington for years. Failing @nytimes (and others) must apologize!” he said. And Trump added, “The spotlight has finally been put on the low-life leakers! They will be caught!” But don’t forget about the time when Trump used to LOVE leaks during the tail end of the 2016 presidential campaign:

  • Oct. 31 from Warren, MI: "Did you see where, on WikiLeaks, it was announced that they were paying protestors to be violent, $1,500?... Did you see another one, another one came in today? This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove."
  • Nov. 2 from Orlando, FL: "Out today, WikiLeaks just came out with a new one, just a little a while ago, it's just been shown that a rigged system with more collusion, possibly illegal, between the Department of Justice, the Clinton campaign and the State Department."
  • Nov. 2 from Pensacola, FL: "They said about Hillary, she's got bad instincts right. You know who said that, Podesta. I would fire Podesta so fast. I mean the way he talks about her, whether true, not true, who cares. He speaks so badly about her. Of course he didn't know there was a thing called WikiLeaks right."
  • Nov. 4 from Wilmington, OH: "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks."
  • Nov. 6 from Sioux City, IA: "Just today, we learned Hillary Clinton was sending highly classified information through her maid. Did you see? Just came out a little while ago, who therefore had total access to this information, completely jeopardizing the national security of the United States. This just came out. WikiLeaks."

The slow start to Trump’s government

Nearly half of his cabinet hasn’t been confirmed: As President Trump is set to hold a campaign-style rally in Florida this weekend, the Senate has confirmed just 12 members of his cabinet and administration team, with another 21 awaiting confirmation (Labor Secretary pick Andy Puzder and Army Secretary pick Vincent Viola withdrew their nominations).

That’s 35 nominations with two withdrawals, according to the Partnership for Public Service. By comparison, at this same point in time in 2009, 28 members of Obama’s team (cabinet secretaries, deputies, administrators) had won Senate confirmation, with another 12 awaiting confirmation (Tom Daschle withdrew as HHS pick in Feb. 2009). So that’s a total of 41 nominations, with one withdrawal. Yet maybe the better apples-to-apples comparison was George W. Bush in 2001, who was coming off the Florida recount and facing a pretty divided Senate. And Trump is behind THAT pace, too — the Senate had confirmed 19 members of Bush 43's team at this same point in time in 2001.

Republicans, of course, blame Senate Democrats for this slow start to Trump’s government. But Democrats point the finger back at Team Trump — for either nominating flawed and controversial picks (like Puzder and Betsy DeVos), or for not quickly sending key ethics information for the nominees. Regardless of the blame, just about half of Trump’s cabinet — forget about the administrators and deputies — has been confirmed.

  • Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson CONFIRMED
  • Attorney General: Jeff Sessions CONFIRMED
  • Treasury: Steve Mnuchin CONFIRMED
  • Defense: JamesMattis CONFIRMED
  • Homeland: John Kelly CONFIRMED
  • Interior: Ryan Zinke NOMINATED
  • HHS: Tom Price CONFIRMED
  • HUD: Ben Carson NOMINATED
  • Education: Betsy DeVos CONFIRMED
  • Commerce: Wilbur Ross NOMINATED
  • Transportation: Elaine Chao CONFIRMED
  • Labor: Andy Puzder WITHDREW
  • Agriculture: Sonny Perdue NOMINATED
  • Energy: Rick Perry NOMINATED
  • Veterans Affairs: David Shulkin CONFIRMED
  • OMB Director: Mick Mulvaney NOMINATED
  • U.S Trade Representative: Robert Lighthizer NOMINATED
  • UN Ambassador: Nikki Haley CONFIRMED
  • Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt NOMINATED
  • Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon CONFIRMED
  • CIA Director: Mike Pompeo CONFIRMED

The slow start to Trump’s government, Part 2

Little movement on tax cuts, Obamacare, and infrastructure: And it’s not only the makeup of Trump’s government that’s gotten off to a slow start; it’s also his key legislative priorities. “During his first four weeks in office, President Donald Trump has signed executive orders, met foreign leaders, prodded business chieftains and battled storms of controversy,” CNBC’s John Harwood writes.

“Among things he hasn't done: given congressional Republicans his plans for infrastructure improvements, health care or tax cuts. That matters because presidential leadership is indispensable for achieving those objectives, each of which holds major significance for the American economy. Without it, even a Congress controlled by Trump's party will have immense trouble overcoming its own internal divisions.” And don’t miss this from Politico: “After spending more than six years vowing to fix the flagging patient that is Obamacare, it’s the GOP’s own repeal effort that’s on life support.”

What were other presidents doing on February 16?