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Meet the Press Blog: Latest news, analysis and data driving the political discussion

Smart political reporting and analysis, including data points, interesting national trends, short updates and more from the NBC News political unit.
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Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:

Pompeo State Department spent $10k on “Madison Dinner” pens shipped from China

WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department spent more than $10,000 on customized pens ordered from China to dole out as gifts for guests for then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's dinner guests, new documents show, while Pompeo was publicly pushing an aggressive stance toward Beijing.

In May, NBC News revealed that Pompeo had been hosting a series of elite, private dinners funded by the taxpayer at the State Department for Republican leaders, billionaire CEOs, celebrities and even Supreme Court justices. State Department officials had raised concerns internally that Pompeo was using federal resources to build a powerful rolodex for his own political future.

Now, government documents obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and released Thursday show that the State Department bought 400 customized pens for Pompeo to give to his guests.

At about $26 each, each pen was embossed with the Madison Diner logo.The emails show State Department officials engaged in lengthy conversations with a Florida-based vendor for pens embossed in China and shipped from there to Chicago before being routed to Washington, the documents show.

During his tenure helming State, Pompeo repeatedly warned that a menacing Beijing was threatening the U.S. and its economy

A representative for Pompeo did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 12, 2021.Andrew Harnik / AP Pool

Republicans are eying Pompeo, a staunch Trump ally, as a likely contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. Pompeo is one of the only high-ranking Trump officials to serve for all four years in Trump’s administration without ever publicly breaking with the president, potentially positioning him as an attractive successor to the Trump brand and his political base.

Emails turned over to NBC News in response to a separate Freedom of Information Act lawsuit the news organization filed against the State Department revealed Pompeo’s wife, Susan Pompeo, was heavily involved in directing State Department employees on carrying out the Madison Dinners.

Former Ohio treasurer jumps into Senate race amid jockeying for Portman seat

WASHINGTON — With a full-throated endorsement of former President Donald Trump's agenda and an attack on career politicians on both sides of the aisle, former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel announced Wednesday that he is running for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen Rob Portman, R-Ohio in 2022. 

Mandel tweeted that he's jumping into the race in the midst of the ongoing impeachment largely to come to the defense of the former president. 

"Watching this sham impeachment has made my blood boil and motivated me to run. I’m going to Washington to fight for President Trump’s America First Agenda," Mandel tweeted.

"In Washington, I will pulverize the Uniparty — that cabal of Democrats and Republicans who sound the same and stand for nothing. My candidacy is about standing up for working people, economic freedom and individual liberty. We must stop the far left’s assault on American values."

Mandel served two tours in Iraq as a Marine, and has spent much of his post-Marine professional life in politics. After a stint as a city councilman, he won a seat in the state House in 2006 when he was just 29 years old. In 2010, he won the state treasurer post, serving two terms in the position. 

The Republican is no stranger to a Senate bid — he was the GOP's nominee who ultimately lost to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in 2012. He ran again against Brown in 2018, but dropped out citing his then-wife's illness. 

Mandel's move is the latest in a busy few weeks for Ohio Senate hopefuls. A handful of big-name Republicans — Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, Rep. Jim Jordan and Attorney Gen. Dave Yost — all recently announced they were not running. Former Rep. Jim Renacci, Rep. Steve Stivers, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and former state GOP chair Jane Timken are among those discussed as other potential candidates. 

On the Democratic side, Rep. Tim Ryan, former state health department head Amy Acton, Rep. Joyce Beatty and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley are among those openly considering bids. 

Impeachment trial carries 2022 campaign considerations for some

WASHINGTON — While politics in general will loom large over former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, Republican senators up for re-election in 2022 may have the most at stake, at least in the near future.

Twenty Republicans senators’ terms expire after the 2022 cycle. Four of them (Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Patrick Toomey, R-Penn.) have announced they will not run again, relieving at least some pressure from them about how their electorates might react to their decision.

While campaign politics won’t be the only question on the minds of Republican senators, the political pressure will be clear. Depending on their situations, some running for re-election will face more potential backlash from their own party, while others may be looking toward a general election. 

Four Republican senators up in 2022 voted that the impeachment trial was constitutional: Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Toomey joined them in that vote. That leaves 15 who voted that the inquiry shouldn't take place. 

One senator up for re-election in 2022, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., voted to object to the Electoral College count in several states on Jan. 6.

Murkowski was one of the few Republican senators who supported the House's impeachment, saying that “Trump’s words incited violence.”

While a vote for impeachment could anger Republican voters at home (Trump himself has floated supporting a primary against Murkowski), she’s proven to be politically durable in a state with an independent streak. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ark., speaks on Capitol Hill, on Feb. 4, 2021, during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee nomination hearing.Graeme Jennings / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., expressed regret for following the former president’s lead on Jan. 6 by initially objecting to the 2020 election results. And while he hasn’t said how he’ll vote in the Senate trial, he called the former president’s election claims “inflammatory.” 

Most red-state Republicans aren't expected to vote to convict — their pvoters still overwhelmingly support the president and voting against him could spark a primary challenge.

But a few may be more concerned about their general elections. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., is a strong supporter of Trump. But Biden won Wisconsin by less than a point in the 2020 election, and statewide elections there are typically decided by thin margins.  

And in Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio — who is running for re-election in a state Trump carried by 3 points but also one where Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, has been rumored to be considering a GOP primary challenge — has said it’s “arrogant” to impeach the former president so he can’t seek public office again.

Republican Claudia Tenney to return to Congress after election finally certified

WASHINGTON — Former Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., has won her seat back in Congress after a lengthy vote count that stretched on for months and into courtrooms. 

The New York State Board of Elections certified New York's 22nd Congressional District election by a unanimous vote on Monday,giving Tenney a victory over Democratic incumbent Rep. Anthony Brindisi.  Shortly after, Brindisi conceded in a statement

The results end the drawn-out contest in an election that saw significant delays in counting the votes and then court fights

Tenney previously served one term in the House, losing to Brindisi in the 2018 midterms before winning again. 

Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y, participates in the press conference calling on Sept. 6, 2018.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

The race is the final undecided race of the 2020 cycle, but the second-to-last to be fully adjudicated. While the House is provisionally seating Rep. Marianette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, her Democratic opponent, Rita Hart, has officially contested the results with the House and is asking for the body to step in and recount ballots. 

High profile exit boosts Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Arkansas gubernatorial bid and cements Trump’s influence on GOP

WASHINGTON — A decade before becoming Arkansas’ lieutenant governor, Tim Griffin served as the Republican Party’s research director during George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

After that, Griffin worked in the Bush White House under Karl Rove, was appointed by Bush as an interim U.S. attorney and then ran for Congress and won – all impressive credentials for any emerging Republican politician, particularly one looking at higher office. 

But with his announcement Monday that he was ending his gubernatorial bid in Arkansas and running for attorney general instead, it more than further cleared the field for GOP gubernatorial frontrunner (and former Trump White House Press Secretary) Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

It showed how today’s Republican Party continues to be remade in Trump’s image, even three months after the former president’s defeat and as he stands trial for an unprecedented second presidential impeachment. 

That someone with Griffin’s resume – and ties to the last GOP president before Trump – has less political currency than Trump’s former press secretary underscores how loyalty to Trump beats everything else in today’s Republican Party.

To be sure, Huckabee Sanders has a political identity outside of Trump. She’s the daughter of the state’s former governor, Mike Huckabee, who worked at high levels on her father’s past presidential campaigns.

FOX News Contributor Sarah Huckabee Sanders visits "The Story with Martha MacCallum" on Sept. 17, 2019 in New York.Steven Ferdman / Getty Images file

And the field isn't completely clear for her, either — Arkansas' current attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, is also running for governor. 

But Huckabee Sanders' most prominent, and recent, job was as Trump's White House press secretary, with Trump endorsing her last month

And in her statement welcoming Huckabee Sanders to the race last month, Rutledge in part celebrated her own support for the Trump agenda, a reminder of his standing in the party, even as she argued that the race "is about Arkansas's future and who has a proven record and not merely rhetoric." 

Loyalty to Trump trumping experience among GOP primary voters isn’t anything new.

In the 2018 cycle, then Rep. Ron DeSantis beat Adam Putnam in Florida’s GOP gubernatorial primary due in large part because DeSantis was seen as a more loyal Trump ally. Putnam had spent a decade in the House (including a stint in leadership) and two terms as the state's agriculture commissioner before his 45th birthday, a resume that had him seen as one of the state GOP's rising stars. 

In 2020, former college football coach Tommy Tuberville defeated Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the runoff for Alabama senator – because Trump had grown dissatisfied with his former Cabinet official. Tuberville had never held a job in politics, while Sessions sat in that Senate seat for two decades. 

And now in 2021, weeks after he left office, loyalty and service to Trump — like Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ work for the former president — trumps everything else.

In first interview since Senate announcement, John Fetterman promises to be 'sedition-free'

WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman announced his run for Senate on Monday morning. Fetterman, a Democrat, is running for the seat of retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn. 

In his first TV interview since announcing his candidacy, Fetterman echoed language that gained him national attention in the wake of the 2020 election: attacking former President Trump's false claims of voter fraud in Pennsylvania and responding to the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

"I would promise to the people of Pennsylvania, I plan to be 100 percent sedition-free if I'm elected," Fetterman said on MSNBC. "There's already too many sedition-curious members of the United States Senate and I would never be one." 

However, in a state that President Biden won by under two percentage points and which Trump carried in 2016, Fetterman's more progressive policy points could be a sticking issue for voters. 

During his Monday interview, Fetterman said he supported ending the Senate filibuster, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and legalizing marijuana.

"In order to get those kind of important things passed, whether it's climate change or things like that, you need to get rid of the filibuster," Fetterman said. "This idea that some random senator from a state with 600,000 people can holdup the democratic will and the sense of urgency that these policies are coming from — I don't think that's very democratic at its core." 

Fetterman also said that he agreed with Biden's decision to end construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline, but supported maintaining the balance between "transitioning away from fossil fuels, but also safeguarding and holding the union way of life sacred." 

"We had a president who was actively tearing up the Paris Accords and other agreements, and throwing environmental concerns away. And now you have a president who's building that back and making decisive actions like canceling the Keystone Pipeline, which some people don't support, and I think he made the right call," Fetterman said. 

 

Why Democrats and Republicans are competing to throw cash at you

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants to send up to $300 a month per child next year to families as part of his Covid-19 relief bill. Now Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah. wants to up the number to $350 and make it a permanent child allowance for nearly all Americans.

The proposals are the latest sign of a sweeping change in the policy conversation, one in which prominent Republicans and Democrats are increasingly competing to offer benefits to families that previous generations of politicians would have dismissed as welfare for the undeserving poor.

Romney’s specific plan is unlikely to get traction with Democrats, since he proposes offsetting its cost by eliminating or scaling back similar antipoverty programs and ending a deduction on state and local taxes that’s popular with Democrats.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, heads to the floor of the Senate on Jan. 26, 2021.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

But it received a warm reception in progressive policy circles. An accompanying analysis by the center-right Niskanen Center estimated it would cut child poverty by a third. 

On both sides of the aisle, there’s more appetite for simply sending Americans cash rather than routing aid through more complicated programs.

“There’s a new generation of policy thinkers on both the left and the right who have a different set of experiences than those who were around during welfare reform,” Samuel Hammond, one of the co-authors of the Niskanen Center’s analysis, said. “It brings together anti-poverty values on the left and pro-family values on the right and unites them in a really nice way.”

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Mike Lee, R-Utah have pushed for larger child tax credits and got a pared-down version of their proposal into the GOP tax bill, for example. And Biden’s Covid-19 relief plan is similar to a bill championed by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. 

Democratic presidential candidates, including Vice President Kamala Harris, proposed an array of new cash benefits and tax credits during the 2020 campaign while Andrew Yang ran on a universal basic income of $1,000 per month.

In the last year, the pandemic turbocharged the conversation, setting the stage for the ongoing debate over $2,000 relief checks that’s produced an odd alliance of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. on the left and former President Trump and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. on the right.

Republicans have gone through a transformation since the days when Romney himself bemoaned in 2012 that the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax are “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims."

Now conservatives may have a tougher time making that case due to political changes wrought by Trump.

While Trump’s economic team was driven by mostly conventional conservatives, his political rhetoric swung 180 degrees from the tea party’s “47 percent” talk. Instead of bemoaning Americans who don’t pay income taxes, he proposed sending them a tax return with “I WIN” printed on it.

He also dropped the tea party’s obsession with deficits, and his push for pandemic checks have gotten Americans in both parties more used to the concept. Trump's success with working class voters has made some social conservatives argue that the party's business wing is too focused on corporate tax cuts, and not enough on benefits for families. 

Democrats have gone through their own transformation. The party’s rising left wing, led by figures like Sanders, emphasized universal benefits in contrast to more limited programs designed to stave off accusations that aid would go to freeloading “welfare queens” or higher incomes who don't need it. 

For more traditional Republicans who are worried that expanded benefits might discourage recipients from working, there’s some concern that the party is losing its identity.

If conservatives want to stop it, though, they may have to re-educate their base. Millennials are now the largest share of the electorate, and many have no memory of either the 1990s-era battles over work requirements or the deficit fears that drove calls for scaling back benefits.

First on NBC: 62 progressive groups pressure Democrats to kill the filibuster

WASHINGTON — In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Friday, 62 progressive groups called for him to abolish the filibuster to give Democratic priorities a chance in Congress. It's the latest signal that the filibuster issue isn't fading despite some vocal holdouts in the caucus. 

"We urge Senate Democrats, under your leadership, to take speedy action to fix the broken Senate and make progress possible by changing the rules to end the gridlock and dysfunction," the groups wrote in the letter, first obtained by NBC News. "The best way to restore a functioning Senate is to eliminate the filibuster as a weapon the minority can use to block an agenda that a majority of Americans have just embraced at the ballot box."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks during a press conference about student debt outside the Capitol on Feb. 4, 2021.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Signatories include March For Our Lives, MoveOn Civic Action, Communications Workers of America, Voto Latino, Greenpeace, Demos, Demand Justice, Indivisible and Our Revolution. The groups represent causes ranging from gun control, climate action, a minimum wage hike, liberalizing immigration and others that are likely to be hindered by the 60-vote rule in a split Senate.

Fix Our Senate, an umbrella group for the campaign against the filibuster run by former Senate Democratic leadership aide Eli Zupnick, led the letter effort. Zupnick praised Schumer for rejecting Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell's demand to preserve the filibuster. But he signaled that activists are expecting Schumer to persuade holdouts like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to help turn the chamber into a majority-rule body.

Schumer is up for re-election in New York next year.

"We know some Democrats are still reluctant to eliminate the filibuster, but we're going to keep making the case that the promises Democrats made to deliver results must be prioritized over an outdated and abused Senate rule that is no longer working and can easily be changed," Zupnick said.

Tweet the Press: Garrett Haake reports on the GOP's Cheney vote, Marjorie Taylor Greene decision

WASHINGTON — House Republicans voted to keep Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in her leadership position on Wednesday night after several Republicans called for her expulsion because of her vote to impeach former President Trump.

NBC's Garrett Haake reports on what that vote means for the caucus and how Republican leadership has responded to Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's controversial comments on conspiracy theories. 

Click here to read the full conversation. 

Moderate GOP group plans to spend $25 million on midterms in fight for future of the party

WASHINGTON — The Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate GOP group that has supported efforts to repudiate the party's fringe before, is making its pitch in the fight for the future of the party with new plans to spend $25 million on congressional races this cycle

The group is also releasing its post-election examination of the 2020 cycle to members and allies — an assessment that lays out its argument for a post-Donald Trump GOP as a party that can harness the frustration of some voters while attracting suburban and minority voters in the process.   

“The Republican Party is not dead. We have a chance to come back stronger than ever if we give the voters what they are looking for,” Sarah Chamberlain, Main Street’s executive director, told NBC News in an interview. 

Chamberlain pointed to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as well as the controversy surrounding Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., as two serious issues threatening to derail the party.

“We had the Jan. 6 situation, now we have the congresswoman from Georgia, we have [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy flying down to see Trump. I get a lot of questions from voters around the country about: ‘What’s happening? Where is my party?’” 

A central theme of the group’s autopsy is a focus on traditional GOP bread-and-butter issues like the economy, foreign policy and national security. The group also wants to rebuild the party’s “ethics and moral standing” in a way that looks nothing “like the family values, Moral Majority” politics of the past, while offering solutions on issues like Covid-19 and mental health, according to the report. 

To keep Trump voters on board, which the plan makes clear constitutes an “important wing of the party,” the group argues that the way forward is connecting to them through a populist pitch that skips the “vulgar and disrespectful” rhetoric that could alienate more voters than it brings in.   

"We have to make a decision: Do we want to be a party of 180 bright red congressmen and women? Or do we want to have 240 and 250 where there are purple districts that we hold," Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a Main Street member, asked on Wednesday's "MTP Daily" on MSNBC. 

Even though Trump lost his re-election bid, many Republicans saw a silver lining in November’s election results as the party narrowed the Democratic House majority with swing-seat wins, leading to hope voters were open to distinguishing between Trump and other Republicans.

But then Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to halt the Electoral College certification in an attack where five lost their lives. Virtually all Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans blamed the attack on the president himself, and the House voted to impeach Trump over it. Shortly after, 147 Congressional Republicans voted to object to the Electoral College certification. 

And now Republicans are facing pressure to punish freshman Rep. Green for espousing conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric.

Democrats have quickly moved to marry the two controversies to define the GOP. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began running TV and digital ads Tuesday accusing Republicans of refusing to stand up to extremists by not voting to impeach Trump. 

“Trump may have been malignant, but now it's metastasized,” DCCC chairman and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said Tuesday on “Morning Joe.” 

“If they want to deny the pandemic or throw out the election, they certainly cannot be trusted with power.” 

The Republican Main Street Partnership operates as an outside group that has a membership of lawmakers who align with its goals. 

Nine out of the 60 Main Street members voted against the Electoral College certification, Chamberlain told NBC, quick to note that she had 51 members vote to certify the presidential election. Weeks later, eight of the 10 GOP votes for Trump’s impeachment came from Main Street members. 

While Main Street helped to knock off disgraced Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King last cycle, Chamberlain said that the group has no current plans to try to unseat another incumbent Republican. 

Instead, the group’s priorities are protecting its incumbent members, as well as recruiting like-minded candidates to help win control of the House for Republicans, while growing Main Street’s political and policy clout.

The internal fight within the GOP is still in the early stages, and Trump is still looking to wield significant influence in the party. But pointing to trends in states like Arizona, which has seen both Senate seats flip to Democrats in the past two election cycles, Chamberlain is throwing down the gauntlet.

“We can’t lose a generation of 18-to-21-year-olds right now who register as Democrats because they’re watching what’s going on and say they can’t relate to that. We can’t afford to lose these suburban areas because they can swing House seats and Senate seats, she said.

“If they leave, we may not get them back.”

Progressive group takes on Manchin, Sinema

WASHINGTON — A new progressive group co-founded by former aides to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., announced Tuesday that it was recruiting primary challengers against Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., over their opposition to eliminate the Senate’s legislative filibuster. 

Neither Manchin nor Sinema are up for re-election until 2024.

The campaign by this group, No Excuses PAC, against these two moderate Democratic senators was first reported by POLITICO.

“Democrats have a couple years, max, to improve the lives of the American people. If they blow it, Republicans take back over, and then we’ll get another Trumper back in the White House — maybe Trump himself,” said Corbin Trent, the president of No Excuses PAC, who worked for Ocasio-Cortez, as well as for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.  

“Senators like Sinema and Manchin seem to think we need more talk and less action in the Senate. If they are dictating the agenda, it’ll be hard to hold on to the majority,” Trent added. 

No Excuses PAC has already aired radio ads against both Manchin and Sinema.

 

It’s unclear, however, how effective this progressive campaign will be against these two senators in these two states.

In addition to both not being up for re-election for another three years, Manchin easily bested a liberal primary challenger in 2018 on his way to a narrow re-election victory — in a state Donald Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points two years later. 

Sinema, meanwhile, faced no primary opposition in her 2018 Senate bid, and won the general election with 50 percent of the vote.

But one political observer believes the campaign will be beneficial — for both the progressive group’s coffers, and for Manchin’s and Sinema’s moderate credentials in these two states.