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.
Yes, Trump’s attacks on his Justice Department are a huge problem
If you were outraged — legitimately so — by Bill Clinton’s tarmac meeting with former Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch, then your jaw must be on the floor after reading The New York Times’ interview with President Trump.
In that interview, the president of the United States attacks Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself in the Russia investigation. (“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else... Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president.”)
He questions Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein because he lived in Baltimore. (“There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any.”) And he said special counsel Robert Mueller would be crossing a red line if Mueller looked at his finances unrelated to Russia. (“I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia.”) And asked if he’d fire Mueller for doing that, the president replied, “I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
The reason why so many were aghast at Bill Clinton’s meeting with Lynch was because it APPEARED that a person of influence (a former president) was butting into an investigation that Lynch’s Justice Department was leading (into Hillary Clinton’s emails), even if they never discussed the matter.
But in this New York Times interview, you have the current president criticizing his own attorney general for recusing himself; questioning the political motivations of the deputy attorney general; and warning the special counsel what he may or may not investigate — all while there is a federal investigation into his campaign’s ties/contacts/interactions with Russian entities. And it raises this question: If Trump has nothing to hide in this Russia investigation, why is he so concerned about it?
The current state of play on health care: It’s still alive — but barely
This summary, via HuffPost’s Matt Fuller, captures where things stand on health care. “A day after just about everyone on Capitol Hill declared the Senate health care bill dead, the legislation once again seemed to have the tiniest bit of life, with Republicans staying late into the night Wednesday to discuss whether there was a path forward.”
More: “If Collins is a no vote on any form of the legislation and Paul won’t support a replacement, and Capito and Murkowski won’t support the repeal-only approach, and Lee and Moran won’t support the replacement, and it’s unclear if McCain will be back next week ... Republicans simply don’t have the votes throughout all the confusing scenarios. And that’s to say nothing of Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has been cagey all along on any form of the legislation.”
Rooting — and praying — for John McCain’s recovery
But the story on the top of our minds this morning is the sad news that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was diagnosed with brain cancer. Your authors have covered McCain for decades — his presidential bids, his long career in the Senate — and he’s one of the most original and authentic politicians this nation has ever produced.
McCain’s friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., summed up our feelings: "This disease has never had a more worthy opponent," Graham said last night, per MSNBC’s Garrett Haake. Added former President Barack Obama, who ran against McCain in 2008: “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known. Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John.”
Why that Trump-Putin meeting raises so many red flags
NBC’s Robert Windrem: “President Donald Trump's just-disclosed hour-long meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-20 summit — using a Kremlin translator, with no national security staff present — may have damaged U.S. interests, according to some national security experts. With no other witness or note-taker of the sort normally present on the American side, there's no guarantee that Trump or Putin's words were translated correctly — or that Trump didn't give away more classified information, as he did when top Russian officials came to the White House in May. Experts who spoke to NBC News also said the impromptu tête-à-tête in Germany, while not unprecedented, represented a break with protocol. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said he can only recall one instance of a U.S. president letting a Russian handle translation duties — Richard Nixon, in a May 1972 summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.”
It’s not a positive when the vice chair of the election-integrity commission can’t say who won the popular vote in 2016
“You know, we may never know the answer to that," said Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State, who serves on Trump’s Presidential Commission on Voter Integrity, after he was asked by MSNBC’s Katy Tur whether he thought Clinton "won the popular vote by 3 to 5 million votes," per NBC News. “We will probably never know the answer to that question," he added.
Actually, Clinton won the popular vote in the 2016 election by approximately 2.87 million votes.
According to the certified Federal Election Commission records, Clinton received 65,853,516 votes and Trump got 62.984,825. Kobach did not provide any evidence to support his statement. There have been no instances of widespread fraud reported in last year's election.
When Tur followed up with, "How do you say we may never know the answer to that question?" Kobach explained his rationale: "What I'm saying is, let's suppose that the commission determined that there were a certain number of votes cast by ineligible voters. You still won’t know whether those people who were ineligible voted for Trump or for Clinton or for somebody else…"
Kobach then admitted that some of the votes Trump received in November could be called into question, too. "So are the votes for Donald Trump that led him to win the election in doubt as well?" Tur asked. "Absolutely," Kobach said.