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What Happens When a President Can't Handle Bad News?

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 speaks while hosting a breakfast with business leaders
President Donald Trump speaks while hosting a breakfast with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, on Jan. 23, 2017. Sitting across from Trump are Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Andrew N. Liveris, Chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical Company.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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.

What happens when a president can’t handle bad news

If there’s a common theme from the Washington Post story describing “tumult” in the new White House, from President Donald Trump repeating the debunked claim that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election, and from the press briefing yesterday, it’s this: The president can’t handle criticism. Or facts that don’t paint him in the best-possible light. Here’s the Washington Post:

“President Trump had just returned to the White House on Saturday from his final inauguration event, a tranquil interfaith prayer service, when the flashes of anger began to build. Trump turned on the television to see a jarring juxtaposition — massive demonstrations around the globe protesting his day-old presidency and footage of the sparser crowd at his inauguration, with large patches of white empty space on the Mall. As his press secretary, Sean Spicer, was still unpacking boxes in his spacious new West Wing office, Trump grew increasingly and visibly enraged.”

Here’s that debunked claim to explain his popular-vote loss:

“Two sources confirmed to NBC News that Trump spent about the first 10 minutes of his bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders at the White House talking about the campaign and about how 3 million to 5 million ‘illegals’ voted in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote.”

And here’s White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer at yesterday’s press briefing, per NPR:

“‘The default narrative is always negative,’ Spicer said… ‘And that's demoralizing.’ Spicer lamented what he called a ‘constant theme to undercut the tremendous support’ that Trump has, adding, ‘I think it’s just unbelievably frustrating when you're continually told it's not big enough; it's not good enough; you can't win.’”

Of course, Trump’s inability to handle criticism or not being painted in the best-possible light was evident during the presidential campaign, which he won. But being inside that White House is MUCH DIFFERENT than being on the campaign trail, and it all gives opponents a playbook how to get under Trump’s skin. So what can Trump advisers do to minimize this? Well, you either have someone in the West Wing who can rein in these instincts, or you keep him as busy as possible -- so he doesn’t have much free time to watch TV to see what others are saying.

A reminder: Trump thrives in chaos

The other theme from the Washington Post story is just how chaotic the new White House is right now. And, folks, we’re only on Day 5. “The broader power struggles within the Trump operation have touched everything from the new administration’s communications shop to the expansive role of the president’s son-in-law to the formation of Trump’s political organization. At the center, as always, is Trump himself, whose ascent to the White House seems to have only heightened his acute sensitivity to criticism. This account of Trump’s tumultuous first days in office comes from interviews with nearly a dozen senior White House officials and other Trump advisers and confidants, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and moments.” Tumult. Leaks. Conflicts. We’ve never seen such chaos for a new White House. But remember, while most presidents -- and people, for that matter -- couldn’t handle such chaos, Trump doesn’t mind it. In fact, he tends to thrive in it.

The conspiracy-theorist-in-chief

As mentioned above, the man who championed the “birther” conspiracy theories about former President Obama and who has raised doubts about vaccines is back at it again. “Two sources confirmed to NBC News that Trump spent about the first 10 minutes of his bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders at the White House talking about the campaign and about how 3 million to 5 million ‘illegals’ voted in the election, causing him to lose the popular vote,” NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports. The folks at PolitFact have rated that Trump claim -- which he’s made before to explain his popular-vote loss -- as “Pants On Fire.” Per PolitiFact, “Neither Trump nor his allies have presented any evidence of widespread illegal voting. In reality, studies have consistently shown that voter fraud is nowhere near common enough to call into question millions and millions of votes.” And the New York Times is using the “L” word to describe Trump’s debunked claim: “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers,” its headline says.

Remembering the other Trump conspiracy theories

Back in the fall, NBC’s Benjy Sarlin chronicled the other conspiracy theories Trump has held. “When asked by NBC News' Chuck Todd whether the country would accept a Muslim president, Trump replied last September, ‘some people have said it already happened, frankly.’ He tweeted in February that Obama skipped Justice Antonin Scalia's funeral because it wasn't ‘held in a Mosque.’ After the Pulse nightclub shooting in June, he hinted Obama sympathized with radical Islamic terrorists. ‘He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands,’ Trump said... He claimed he personally witnessed ‘thousands and thousands’ of Muslims celebrate 9/11 on rooftops in New Jersey and refused to back down despite failing to provide any credible evidence for the claim. He has repeatedly and falsely accused neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters of seeing pipe bombs on the floor of their apartment and not passing the info on to the police.”

NBC News: There was nothing improper in Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador

Per NBC’s Ken Dilanian last night, “Confirming a report in the Washington Post tonight, a U.S. intelligence official tells NBC News there never was an ‘investigation’ of calls to the Russian Ambassador by National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. The calls were briefly examined only because they were picked up incidentally as part of routine eavesdropping on the ambassador, said the official, who added that nothing improper was found. Separately, a former U.S. counter intelligence official told NBC News it is not uncommon for diplomats or other U.S. officials go draw the scrutiny of FBI counterintelligence agents if they are recorded talking to foreign counterparts, but rarely does anything come of it, because US officials have wide latitude in how they communicate as part of their jobs.”

Trump’s day

At 9:00 am ET, Trump meets with auto-industry leaders… At 11:00 am, he signs executive orders… At 1:00 pm ET, he speaks with Indian Prime Minister Modi… And at 3:45 pm ET, he meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

What were past presidents up to on Day 5 of their presidency (January 24)?

  • Barack Obama was working to sell Americans on the new economic stimulus plan.
  • George W. Bush met with bipartisan Congressional leaders. One issue irking his administration already: a delay in the confirmation of his controversial nominee for Attorney General, John Ashcroft.
  • Bill Clinton was taking incoming fire from the Vatican for his moves to ease limits on abortion. Also this day in 1993: the death of retired Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
  • George H.W. Bush opened bipartisan talks with Congress on the budget. His HHS secretary designate, Louis Sullivan, was also in hot water over confusion about his stance on Roe v. Wade.
  • Ronald Reagan was still enjoying good press as the released American hostages from Iran prepared to fly home.
  • And Jimmy Carter held his first major interview with the Associated Press and UPI.

Trump Cabinet Watch

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