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If Trump believes Hillary's emails were the 'biggest political scandal since Watergate,' what 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.
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign.RHONA WISE / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The central argument that Donald Trump used against Hillary Clinton in the last two weeks of the 2016 campaign — the central argument that likely won him the White House — was that Clinton was mired in a political scandal from which she would never recover.

“Hillary Clinton's corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office,” Trump said in New Hampshire on Oct. 28, 2016, after then-FBI Director James Comey informed Congress that he was looking at more emails pertinent to the investigation of Clinton’s personal email server.

“This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate,” he said the next day in Colorado.

“Hillary is likely to be under investigation for many years, probably concluding in a criminal trial,” he added on Nov. 2 in Florida.

“Hillary has engaged in a criminal massive enterprise and cover-ups like probably nobody ever before,” Trump said in Ohio on Nov. 4.

In the end, however, the FBI’s investigation into those additional emails didn’t uncover anything new; nearly all of them were duplicates of emails they already had seen.

Why are we bringing up these memories from the closing days of the 2016 campaign? Because here are the allegations and evidence we learned on Friday from special counsel Robert Mueller and U.S. attorneys in New York:

  • Trump directed an illegal campaign-finance scheme to make payments covering up two affairs in the last days of the ’16 campaign. (“In particular, and as [Trump lawyer/fixer Michael] Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1. As a result of Cohen’s actions, neither woman spoke to the press prior to the election.”)
  • Just before the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests, Team Trump was offered “synergy” with the Russian government. (“[I]n or around November 2015, Cohen received the contact information for, and spoke with, a Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level.’”)
  • And well after former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was indicted, he continued to communicate with Trump administration officials. (“The evidence demonstrates that Manafort had contacts with Administration officials. For instance, in a text exchange from May 26, 2018, Manafort authorized a person to speak with an Administration official on Manafort's behalf. Separately, according to another Manafort colleague, Manafort said in February 2018 that Manafort had been in communication with a senior Administration official up through February 2018.”)

And these are only the allegations and evidence we learned on Friday. There’s nothing concerning that June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian individuals; nothing about the WikiLeaks disclosures of hacked campaign emails; nothing about why Trump fired Comey or why he was constantly angry at former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

If those duplicate Clinton emails from 2016 were — in Trump’s words — the “biggest political scandal since Watergate,” what does that make what we learned on Friday about the president, his campaign and his associates?

Trump: Cohen payments were a 'private transaction' that’s Cohen’s problem, not his

In response to the claim from U.S. attorneys in New York that Trump directed an illegal campaign-finance scheme during the 2016 campaign, Trump put the onus on former lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen, tweeting:

“So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution,....

…which it was not (but even if it was, it is only a CIVIL CASE, like Obama’s - but it was done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me). Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!”

Translation: If there was any wrongdoing committed, it was by Cohen, not by Trump.

The 'I'-word heats up

Meanwhile, on CNN yesterday, incoming House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said the revelations on Friday demonstrated that Trump was at the center of “massive fraud” during the 2016 election.

“Calling for Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller to ‘get to the bottom of this’ and ‘find out the extent of the president's involvement,’ Nadler said what was detailed in the Cohen filings amount to ‘impeachable offenses,’” per NBC’s Allan Smith.

“‘Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question,’ he added.”

On the other hand, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he hasn’t seen enough evidence yet that would warrant impeachment.

“‘I don't think that there's evidence yet available to the public where there would be more or less a consensus that this is an appropriate path,’ King said in an appearance on ‘Meet the Press.’

“‘My concern is that if impeachment is moved forward on the evidence that we have now, at least a third of the country would think it was just political revenge and a coup against the president,’ said the senator, who caucuses with Democrats. ‘That wouldn't serve us well at all. The best way to solve a problem like this, to me, is elections.’”

Who actually wants the 'impossible' job to be Trump’s next chief of staff?

The other news over the weekend — besides those Mueller revelations on Friday and new talk of the “I”-word on Sunday — was chief of staff John Kelly’s departure and the decision by VP chief of staff Nick Ayers NOT to take the job.

Per NBC’s Geoff Bennett, top contenders to be Trump’s third chief of staff in less than two years in office are, according to multiple sources:

  • Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
  • OMB Director Mick Mulvaney
  • 2016 Deputy Campaign Manager David Bossie
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin
  • Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker
  • New York Yankees President Randy Levine (a longtime Trump backer)

But one source tells Bennett how difficult it will be to fill the job. "You have a six-year chair of the RNC and a four-star combat Marine who couldn’t get out soon enough. Both guys got ground up. The outcome (of taking the chief of staff job) is impossible for any person. And when you add the kids (Jared and Ivanka) that don’t have a defined role, it makes it even more impossible.”

And: “History has already predetermined the next guy’s fate.”

By the way, there’s always a Trump tweet: “3 Chief of Staffs in less than 3 years of being President: Part of the reason why @BarackObama can't manage to pass his agenda,” Trump said of Obama in January 2012.

Comey: Trump obviously obstructed justice in 2017

Speaking of James Comey, here’s NBC’s Mike Memoli: “Former FBI Director James Comey offered a stark assessment of President Donald Trump’s potential legal jeopardy Sunday, saying new filings from federal prosecutors point to heightened scrutiny of the president’s own conduct. If Trump is not yet an unindicted co-conspirator to charges already filed by the special counsel and federal prosecutors against former Trump associates, ‘he’s certainly close,’ Comey told Nicolle Wallace, host of MSNBC’s ‘Deadline White House’ and an NBC News political analyst, during a discussion at the 92nd Street Y in New York Sunday night.”

Also: “The president's harsh attacks on Comey — he made a new one just this weekend — could be seen by a prosecutor as attempts to tamper with witnesses in an ongoing criminal matter, he said. ‘I don’t know how the special counsel thinks about it. But if I were a prosecutor, and a public figure started attacking the credibility of one of my witnesses in a pending investigation, that’s something that I would look at very closely,’ he said.”

And: “Comey said he took it as a personal direction during a private conversation with the president for Comey to show leniency toward Flynn — which he soon documented in a memorandum to his closest aides. ‘Obviously it’s evidence of obstruction of justice’ that needed to be investigated further, Comey said. ‘How to handle that was something we struggled with.’”

Rough goings for Trump’s generals

And speaking of John Kelly’s departure … “For all of President Donald Trump’s talk about how much he loves his military generals, those picked for prominent roles in his orbit have not tended to fare well,” per NBC’s Josh Lederman, Courtney Kube and Carol Lee.

“The plight of Trump’s generals is coming into focus as beleaguered chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, is on his way out. Trump is also causing a stir at the Pentagon by undermining Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, himself a retired general, with his untimely selection of Gen. Mark Milley as the next Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman — against Mattis’ advice.”