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Here's why the Post Office is the most important story in politics right now

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.
Image: A woman cleans the doors of the National Capital Station U.S. Post Office near Capitol Hill in Washington
A woman cleans the doors of the National Capital Station U.S. Post Office near Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 13, 2020.Sarah Silbiger / Reuters

WASHINGTON — After weeks of tension over accusations of political meddling at the Postal Service, it feels like the dam is breaking.

In just the last day or so:

  • The president said in his most explicit terms yet that holding up emergency funds for the Postal Service would ensure that the post office would be unable to “take all of these millions and millions of ballots.” More: “Now, if we don't make a deal, that means they don't get the money. That means they can't have universal mail-in voting. They just can't have it.”
  • The Biden campaign directly accused the president of attempting to “sabotage” the USPS, calling it an “assault on our democracy.” (Biden himself added that Trump “doesn’t want an election.”)
  • Trump seemed to suggest that he would not veto a coronavirus bill that included postal funding if it made it to his desk, but he also continued to make claims — without evidence — that mail balloting conducted with that funding would be fraudulent.
  • Vice reported (and NBC News confirmed) that the Postal Service is removing sorting machines from facilities around the country without any official explanation
  • We learned that USPS warned secretaries of state in Michigan and Pennsylvania that that their deadlines for mail balloting might be too tight to meet the service’s “delivery standards.”
  • We learned that the president and his wife have requested absentee ballots in Florida for the second time as Palm Beach residents
  • The Washington Post first reported that new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who instituted the recent changes that have slowed mail nationwide, is “in frequent contact with top Republican Party officials” and met with the president in the Oval Office last week.

Oh, and amid all of this, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate until after Labor Day, signaling that talks on coronavirus relief — and the emergency mail funding that could be connected to it — have officially completely stalled.

The controversy is now definitely in the public bloodstream — and it’s not going away.

Our question: Does all the attention this story is getting backfire for Trump if Democratic voters start reassessing — again — how and when they’ll cast their votes to ensure they’re counted?

Spaghetti, meet wall

Outside of the mail story, the Trump administration had a positive message they could have run with all day yesterday.

In a diplomatic breakthrough, the United States brokered a deal between Israel and the UAE to normalize ties.

But instead of zeroing in on a historic deal, Trump stepped all over that message by making headlines about a laundry list of other things.

Floating a conspiracy theory about Kamala Harris being ineligible to serve as president. Calling Harris “angry” and a “madwoman” and saying that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “yaps” … Announcing that he’ll break with protocol and accept the Republican nomination on the White House grounds… telling the New York Post that he has a shot to win New York, a state that he lost by 22 points four years ago… saying Democrats “don’t want to have cows … or any form of animals” — without any further explanation.

Meanwhile, other than a brief response on the USPS story, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris talked about one message on Thursday: Pushing a national mask mandate to save lives and slow the spread of coronavirus.

Which message do voters want? “Wear a mask”? Or Trump’s scattershot approach?

Tweet of the Day

Barr the door

Speaking of the dam breaking… Trump’s mail comments on Fox Business yesterday deservedly got a lot more attention, but don’t miss this statement from President Trump yesterday on Bill Barr’s handling of the Durham probe into the origins of the Russia investigation.

The president told the network that he hopes that U.S. attorney John Durham “is not going to be politically correct” and won’t limit his findings to “just get a couple of the lower guys.” (That comment came after he suggested that Barack Obama and Joe Biden “knew everything.”)

And he made this ominous statement about Barr: “Bill Barr can go down as the greatest attorney general in the history of our country, or he can go down as an average guy. We’ll see what happens.”

Barr, for his part, is promising a “development” in the probe today, although not an “earth-shattering” one.

It’s another example of how the president’s comments publicly pressuring investigators will probably backfire, though.

For any DOJ investigation to have a real-world impact, the investigators would have to have credibility. (That’s what Jeff Sessions was thinking when he recused himself from the Mueller investigation, and look where that ended up.)

But Trump’s threats continually undermine the ability of his Justice Department to be viewed as anything but political.

Help is not on the way

After talks on a coronavirus relief bill hit a standstill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell adjourned the Senate until after Labor Day. While senators will be on a 24 hour notice to get back to D.C. if a deal is made, there are no signs that negotiations are continuing.

But while the Hill will likely be quiet for the rest of the summer, September will be busy not just dealing with coronavirus relief legislation, but also with investigations into the slow-down of mail, senators campaigning for reelection and a government funding bill — since current funding runs out on Sept. 30.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

5,274,473: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 61,225 more than yesterday morning.)

168,329: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,522 more than yesterday morning.)

64.6 million: The number of coronavirus tests administered in the U.S., according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

20.8 million: Over 20.8 million people have been sickened by coronavirus worldwide, according to a New York Times tracker.

755,294: The number of people who have died worldwide from the virus.

The Lid: Ballot blocks

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at a new poll finding that half of registered voters expect that it will be difficult to cast their ballot this fall.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world?

Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced they’d formalize relations on Thursday – a decision cheered by Bahrain and Egypt and denounced by Palestinians.

Belarusian authorities released some detained protesters after widespread condemnation and ahead of the European Union meeting to discuss sanctions.

The Justice Department accused Yale University of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants.

President Trump echoed the racist “birther” theorythat California Sen. Kamala Harris doesn’t meet the requirements to be vice president. Harris was born in California.

President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen said in his new book that Trump worked with Russia to win the 2016 election.

The Biden campaign reported it raised $48 million since announcing Harris as the V.P. choice.