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Why Is Trump Acting So Spooked Over the Russia Investigation?

A roundup of the most important political news stories of the day
Image: President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks back into the White House in Washington on Wednesday.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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

Why is Trump acting so spooked over the Russia investigation?

With almost every step he’s taken so far in the Russia investigation, President Trump has been his own worst enemy — by making his political problems worse. Consider:

  • He fired FBI Director Comey who had been looking into the Russia probe and admitted the investigation was the reason behind Comey’s dismissal. ("When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story," he told NBC’s Lester Holt.
  • He bragged about Comey’s firing to Russian officials visiting the Oval Office. ("I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job," he said, according to the New York Times. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off.")
  • He’s tweeted that the Russia investigation is “phony” and a “hoax.”
  • He’s taken little to no action so far in trying to ensure that Russia or other countries can’t interfere in the United States’ next big election.
  • And last night on PBS, one of Trump’s close friends said the president is considering firing the special counsel, Robert Mueller, who’s now looking into the Russia matter. "I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option," said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of the conservative news outlet Newsmax.

All of these actions and statements raise this gigantic question: Why is Trump so afraid of the Russia investigation? Indeed, on “Today” this morning, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) said, “If there is nothing there, then why do you keep impeding it” — or suggesting you might? As former Bush speechwriter David Frum said on MSNBC last night, “If President Trump really does fire Robert Mueller, he might as well just hire a skywriter to trace in smoke over the White House ‘I am super guilty.’” And don’t forget in all of this: The Mueller investigation has BARELY started. What is going to happen in three months? Six months?

Trump can’t directly fire Mueller under the current rules

MSNBC’s Ari Melber makes an important point: “Can the president fire the special counsel? No, not lawfully in one action. That is because federal regulations mandate ‘only’ the attorney general can fire the special counsel for enumerated reasons, or an acting attorney general in the event of recusal (28 CFR 600)… Can the president take actions to lead to the firing of the special counsel? Yes, as a matter of technical authority, a president could conceivably: (1) instruct the DOJ to change those federal rules, and then fire the special counsel under any new rules that provide for the President to exercise that authority; or (2) the president could instruct a DOJ official to carry out the firing.”

Bottom line from Melber: “The current rules do not provide the President the authority to unilaterally fire the special counsel — the action requires changing the rules or demanding other officials carry out the request.”

Sessions testifies to the Senate, and here are three questions he’ll certainly be asked

At 2:30 pm ET, Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Here are three questions that he almost certainly will be asked.

1. Does he still stand by his original explanation that FBI Director James Comey was fired for his handling of the 2016 Hillary Clinton email investigation?

"Based on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI." (Sessions’ letter to Trump, 5/9/2017)

2. If he recused himself from the Russia investigation, why didn’t Sessions also recuse himself from the decision to fire Comey?

That’s a question I can’t answer. I think it’s a reasonable question. If — if, as the president said, I was fired because of the Russia investigation, why was the attorney general involved in that chain? I don’t know, and so I don’t have an answer for the question. (Comey Senate testimony, 6/8/2017)

3. How did he take Comey’s concern that the former FBI director shouldn’t be left alone with the Trump? Did he act on it? And if so, what was that action?

“Shortly afterwards, I spoke with Attorney General Sessions in person to pass along the President’s concerns about leaks. I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen." (Comey written statement to Senate, 6/8/2017)

The Senate also wants to know if Sessions privately met with Russia’s ambassador

NBC’s Ken Dilanian has more on Sessions’ upcoming testimony today. “As NBC News has reported, lawmakers want to know whether Sessions met privately with [Russian Ambassador] Kislyak in April 2016 during a Donald Trump campaign event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. His spokeswoman has denied that any such private encounter occurred. And Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews on Hardball, said Monday that the U.S. ‘intercepted some contacts between Kislyak and his people.’ But he added that it wasn't clear whether Kislyak was exaggerating, suggesting a meeting with Sessions that had not, in fact, occurred.” Our other question: Who is Sessions’ main audience — his former Senate colleagues or his boss (Trump)?

It’s Primary Day in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest

Today is Primary Day in Virginia, where Democratic and Republican voters go to the polls to choose their gubernatorial nominees for the fall general election. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Rep. Tom Perriello have battled it out in a highly competitive race. On the GOP side, former RNC Chair and Bush 43 top aide Ed Gillespie is the clear frontrunner, but he’s getting a challenge from Prince William County Chair Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner. Stewart has made protecting Confederate monuments a pillar of his campaign, and one question to follow tonight is how much traction does he get? Or does Gillespie completely blow him out of the water? Polls close at 7:00 pm ET. Here are all of the stories we’ve done on Virginia’s gubernatorial contest:

Trump’s Day

President Trump today travels to Wisconsin, where he makes a statement on health care at 4:10 pm ET and then leads a workforce development roundtable discussion at 5:15 pm ET. After that, the president hits a fundraiser for Gov. Scott Walker.

Trump has spent nearly 1/3 of days as president at a Trump property and 1/5 at a Trump golf property

As lawsuits over the Trump family’s involvement in its hotel and property empire continue to wind their way through the courts, there’s even more reason to keep an eye on how frequently the president visits the properties that bear his name. NBC News and the NBC News White House unit are tracking Trump’s visits, and we’ve calculated that Trump has spent 42 of his 140-plus days in office at a Trump property. Twenty-nine of those included a visit to a Trump golf course. We’ll continue to track his getaways here.

Special Election Watch: Ad spending in GA-6 race approaches $40 million (!!!)

As of one us wrote yesterday: “Ad spending in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District race has reached nearly $40 million, easily cementing the congressional contest as the most expensive of its kind in U.S. history, according to new data shared with NBC News. The numbers, compiled by Advertising Analytics, show that Republicans have narrowly edged out Democrats in total ad spending for the primary and runoff elections in the high-stakes congressional showdown, with GOP organizations spending a total of $21 million on the airwaves to defend the reliably Republican seat vacated by now-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Democrats, boosted by record-setting fundraising by candidate Jon Ossoff, have spent a total of $18.7 million on the air.” More: “Because candidates receive more favorable rates for ads than issue groups, Democrats have actually been able to air more ads despite being outspent by the GOP overall” — due to the $13.6 million the Ossoff campaign has aired (vs. $2.3 million for Republican Karen Handel).