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
A West Wing Divided: The Nationalists vs. the Globalists
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon didn’t just lose his position on the National Security Council; the news exposed a rift inside the West Wing. “Mr. Bannon resisted the move, even threatening at one point to quit if it went forward, according to a White House official who, like others, insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations,” the New York Times reports. But Bannon tells NBC’s Kristen Welker that this report is “total nonsense.” A second administration official also said the report was false. Still, a source familiar with the situation describes to Welker a "war" emerging between the "globalists" in the West Wing like top economic adviser Gary Cohn and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the “nationalists” like Bannon. One administration source sees the battle as a fight between the so-called "West Wing Democrats" who are trying to mold policy, versus those who are trying to implement Trump's campaign promises.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough has more on the intrigue inside the White House: “Seeing plummeting approval ratings and a health-care debacle in the House, President Trump has come to realize that the source of much of the chaos inside his White House has been Steve Bannon. Bannon himself has been extraordinarily frustrated inside the White House, at one point saying, ‘If my talents aren't needed here, I can take them somewhere else.’”
Blame game: It appears the White House has settled on its fall guy
Our take here: Someone was going to have to take the blame for President Trump’s rough first weeks in office. And it APPEARS the person many want to take that blame is Bannon. After all, what unites the New York GOP and Paul Ryan crowds? Then again, Bannon still has power and influence. “[T]here is a risk for Mr. Trump in appearing to minimize Mr. Bannon, a hero to the nationalist, anti-immigration base that helped drive Mr. Trump to an Electoral College victory,” the Times adds.
It’s the end of the Senate world as we know it, and I (don’t) feel fine
Today begins the end of the Senate filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, when Senate Democrats are expected to deny Neil Gorsuch the 60 votes to proceed on his nomination — and that will force Republicans to change the rules whereby only a simple majority is needed. The entire situation has saddened Democrats and Republicans. “Their actions came back to haunt them,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said of Democrats changing the filibuster rules for lower-court picks back in 2013. “I believe ours will as well.” But here’s the reality: The 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court pick likely was going to come to an end — whether it was Trump in the White House or Hillary Clinton (with Democrats in charge of the Senate). Indeed, here was the state of play when Clinton was considered the favorite to win the White House:
- John McCain: "I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up." (His spokeswoman walked back the remarks somewhat, saying that McCain would examine any nominee’s record.)
- Ted Cruz, who was arguing that the Supreme Court could handle just eight justices: “There is certainly long historical precedent for a Supreme Court with fewer justices.”
- The Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro: “The Senate should refuse to confirm all of Hillary Clinton’s judicial nominees.”
- Dem Sen. (and VP nominee) Tim Kaine: “If these guys think they’re going to stonewall the filling of that vacancy or other vacancies, then a Democratic Senate majority will say, ‘We’re not going to let you thwart the law.’ And so we will change the Senate rules to uphold the law that the court will be nine members.”
When asked if Democrats would have done the same thing if Hillary Clinton’s nominee would have been denied 60 votes, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) replied to NBC’s Frank Thorp: “That’s sort of typical of the distrust around here. That is exactly what my caucus thinks. Yes, and that’s one reason it’s so hard.” Added Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who spoke for hours Wednesday against Gorsuch’s nomination, “If you had a situation where no matter who the person has nominated that you can never have a president put a Supreme Court nominee forward, we’d all have to wrestle with that because that would be another change that would do diabolical damage.”
Bottom line: No matter the nominee, no matter the president, this 60-vote standard was going down. And there’s just one remaining filibuster left — the 60-vote threshold for legislation. Folks, there is no reward structure (in primaries, fundraising, leadership) for bipartisanship. And until there is, you’re going to see these kinds of norms getting erased.
Is Trump putting himself in the same Syria box that Obama got into?
“President Donald Trump called the suspected chemical attack in Syria ‘an affront to humanity’ that crossed ‘a lot of lines’ during a press conference Wednesday, but declined to say if the U.S. would respond,” NBC’s Andrew Rafferty writes. But is Trump putting himself in the same kind of verbal box Barack Obama got into with his own red line? What is Trump’s follow through here? And if there’s no follow through, does that make your rhetoric — as human and empathetic as it was — worthless?
Trump meets with China’s Xi
NBC’s Ali Vitali tees up today’s meeting between President Trump and China’s Xi. “As Donald Trump gets set to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a tête-à-tête at the Mar-a-Lago club in Florida on Thursday, experts say it's time for the U.S. leader to let his past hostile comments about the Asian powerhouse fade with the Florida sunset. Trump must start building a solid personal relationship with his counterpart and open a starter dialogue on a number of sensitive issues between the two nations, analysts add. While the Chinese are strategic and conservative in their policy and diplomacy maneuvers, Trump has earned his reputation as brash and somewhat unpredictable, often venting governing frustrations on Twitter in 140 characters or less. ‘[The Chinese] know that you cannot conduct foreign policy by Twitter, by tweeting, and brashness,’ former Ambassador to China Max Baucus told NBC News.”
How Mar-a-Lago has become good for Trump’ business
Speaking of Mar-a-Lago, the AP notes how Trump has turned that Florida estate into a marketing brand -- which has potential conflicts of interest. “Mar-a-Lago isn't just a vacation home for Trump. It's a for-profit part of his global real estate empire. That makes ‘Winter White House’ more than a charming phrase; it's good for business. Breaking with presidential precedent, Trump held onto ownership of his businesses when he took office, meaning he makes money when his properties do well. The resort doubled its membership fee to $200,000 after he was elected. And ‘Winter White House’ is working its way into marketing materials. When Trump is in town, Mar-a-Lago's hotel rooms and restaurant reservations fill up fast. The Trump Organization has agreed not to exploit any aspects of the presidency, but those who lease and visit the properties are more than happy to do that work. When the Distressed Investing Summit convened in Palm Beach last month, its brochure noted the opening reception would be ‘at the famed Mar-a-Lago club, one of the most highly regarded private lairs in the world and the new Winter White House.’”
Ossoff raises $8.3 million in GA-6
The special congressional election in Georgia is less than two weeks away, on April 18, and get this: Democrat John Ossoff has raised more than $8 million. The dispatch from NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald: “Jon Ossoff — the 30-year-old first-time candidate in the April 18 special election to succeed HHS Sec Tom Price — just announced raising an astronomical $8.3 million. To put that number in perspective, the average winning congressional candidate spent about $1.6 million on their entire campaign in 2016, according to Open Secrets. That haul would put him in the top 10 fundraisers in Congress if he won, and he still has two more weeks to go. Ossoff did all that in a little over 3 months, thanks to energized national liberals looking for a way to stick it to Donald Trump. FEC reports will be made public tomorrow.” That is an astronomical fundraising number for a congressional election — in just weeks of activity. We have no idea how the race will turn out, but right now the situation reminds us a lot of Scott Brown in 2010…