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Why Trump Should Have Been Taken Both Literally AND Seriously

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: Donald Trump in Florida
Donald Trump at a rally Tuesday at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Fla.Guzman/CSM/REX/Shutterstock / Shutterstock

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.

Why everyone should have taken Trump both literally and seriously

Remember the advice from conservatives that you shouldn’t take Trump literally -- just seriously? Well, let us revise that with the news over the last 12 hours: Going back to the campaign, everyone should have taken Trump literally AND seriously. There’s the border wall. “President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order Wednesday to begin paying for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, a senior administration official told NBC News on Tuesday night, taking the first step toward fulfilling his marquee campaign promise,” NBC’s Kristen Welker and Alex Johnson reported last night. There’s the Muslim ban -- or something very close to it. “U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign executive orders starting on Wednesday that include a temporary ban on most refugees and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries, say congressional aides and immigration experts briefed on the matter,” Reuters says. And there’s Trump’s debunked claim of massive voter fraud in the 2016 election. “I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD,” the president tweeted this morning.

Every word a president or candidate says matters

Now Trump’s statements and early executive actions here aren’t the end of these stories. Congress has a major role to play in paying for any wall, which will cost billions of dollars. (Remember when the GOP insisted that everything had to be paid for?) We need to see the particulars on any change Trump makes pertaining to Middle Eastern refugees. And as NBC’s Ari Melber noted on “Today” this morning, out of the nearly 140 million Americans who voted in 2016, there were just FOUR cases of in-person voter fraud. But the bigger lesson here is that EVERY WORD a president or a presidential candidate utters matters. During the campaign so many people kept saying, “Guys, he’s going to pivot on that Muslim ban.” Or: “The wall is only an applause line.” Well, look where we are today. And if you take Trump both literally and seriously, then his tweet about Chicago last night matters. “If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” (Remember when the GOP was the party against federal overreach?) So does his tweet this morning about investigating voter fraud. In two tweets, the president essentially said that A) one of its largest cities is uninhabitable, and B) our democracy doesn’t work. Words and tweets matter -- whether they’re campaign rhetoric (wall, Muslim ban), apparent rhetorical grenades at opponents (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel), or acts of defiance (doubling down on unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud).

Balz: Trump’s voter fraud claim Trump is “striking at the foundation of a democratic society”

By the way, don’t miss this from the Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “There is no benign explanation for President Trump’s false assertion that millions of people voted illegally in the last election. It is either a deliberate attempt to undermine faith in the democratic process, an exhortation to those who favor new restrictions on access to the ballot box or the worrisome trait of someone with immense power willing to make wild statements without any credible evidence. By repeating as president what he had said as a candidate, for whatever purpose, Trump is now striking at the foundation of a democratic society.”

Untruths, conspiracies overshadow Trump’s early successes

As the Atlantic’s David Graham writes, President Trump has enjoyed some early successes in his first few days in office. His cabinet picks all look headed for confirmation -- which is no small feat given the nominees, Democratic and Republican, who’ve gone down in past years. His outreach to union leaders was a PR win. And he’s on the brink of fulfilling one of his major promises to conservatives -- appointing a Supreme Court nominee. So far, so good, right? Not exactly. Trump’s first five days on the job were dominated by news stories about:

  • His false assertion that it was the media who “made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community," when it turns out his own tweets and statements criticized the CIA and intelligence community.
  • His incorrect statement that 1 million to 1.5 million attended his inauguration, and that the crowd stretched back to the Washington Monument.
  • White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s statement that "This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration -- period -- both in person and around the globe."
  • Trump telling congressional leaders that 3 million to 5 million “illegals” improperly voted, causing him to lose the popular vote.
  • And Spicer responding to that Trump claim by asserting, “He believes what he believes.”

Bottom line: The last few days would have been considered a promising start -- only if Trump’s words and untruths didn’t get in the way. In the Alternative Presidency, we’d be more focused on the Trump nominees getting confirmed, the outreach to organized labor (which ought to scare Democrats), and the upcoming Supreme Court pick.

Clamping down on federal agencies?

Per Politico, “Federal agencies are clamping down on public information and social media in the early days of Donald Trump's presidency, limiting employees’ ability to issue news releases, tweet, make policy pronouncements or otherwise communicate with the outside world, according to memos and sources from multiple agencies. The steps to mute federal employees — seen to varying degrees in the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior, Transportation, Agriculture and Health and Human Services — are sparking early fears of a broader crackdown across the government, as Trump vows to pursue an agenda sharply at odds with his predecessor.” In fairness to Team Trump, this could very well be the transition struggles of a new administration; they’re simply getting their team into place, and they don’t want confusion with conflicting communications and tweets. But the narrative has been established, and the next example of this will set off a big story. So if they don’t want it to become a major story, they need to be EXTRA careful that they’re not clamping down on agencies and civil servants.

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 CONFIRMED
  • Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt NOMINATED
  • Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon NOMINATED
  • CIA Director: Mike Pompeo CONFIRMED

What were other presidents doing on Day 6 of their presidency (January 25)?

  • Pundits were busy noting that Barack Obama’s early moves on ethics and torture set an important tone, but that he would soon have to plunge into the tough jobs of health care overhaul and fixing the economy.
  • Bill Clinton gave an address on health care reform and outlined his wife Hillary Clinton’s role in the overhaul; he also met with the Joint Chiefs to inform them of his intent to lift the ban on gays in the military
  • George H.W. Bush signed an executive order on federal ethics reform, and he held a joint interview with the Houston Post and the New York Times after complaining about how journalists in the press pool kept jostling and shouting questions
  • Ronald Reagan hosted a reception for the families of the freed American hostages. (The hostages themselves touched down on American soil the same day)
  • Jimmy Carter’s administration started outlining his $31 billion economic plan