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A new Congress begins, but the chaos in Washington remains the same

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: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Jan. 2, 2019. David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of Interior, is left and Patrick Shanahan, Acting Secretary of Defense, is right.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — Well, where we left off before the holidays – a government shutdown, chaos inside the Trump administration and Republican infighting – hasn’t changed that much after the New Year.

The shutdown is on Day 13; incoming Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, blasted President Trump in a Washington Post op-ed, while Trump fired back; and when Trump’s cabinet met on Wednesday, it did so with several acting cabinet secretaries and administrators.

And with the new 116th Congress beginning today – Democrats are now in control of the House after their midterm victory last November – not a whole lot has immediately changed when it comes to the shutdown and Washington chaos.

In an exclusive interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi said House Democrats are unwilling to give up any money for Trump’s border wall. "We can go through the back and forth," Pelosi said. "No. How many more times can we say no? Nothing for the wall."

Meanwhile, at yesterday’s immigration briefing at the White House, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer repeatedly asked Trump why he wouldn’t support the Democratic plan to pass the six appropriations bills NOT related to the Department of Homeland Security and the border wall, and Trump responded by saying, “I would look foolish if I did that,” two sources familiar with the meeting told NBC News, per Alex Moe, Hallie Jackson and Frank Thorp. (Two White House officials pushed back, suggesting that the president – when pressed by Schumer – was referring to how it wouldn’t make sense to agree to a plan that doesn’t include border security funding.)

The White House is expected to hold another meeting with lawmakers on Friday. That would be Day 14 of the shutdown.

Perhaps it’s only fitting in our current politics that a new Congress begins with a government-shutdown mess on its hands. And it’s what governing will look like for the rest of the Trump Era, creating a hunger for change as the political conversation shifts to the 2020 presidential race.

But here’s the challenge for the Democrats who today take control of the House: What happens when a change in Congress doesn’t necessarily create a change in Washington – at least when it comes to the chaos?

Sure, House Democrats now have the power of subpoena, and they will control the gavels of the intelligence and oversight committees. But what else will change in Washington?

Pelosi: It’s hard to negotiate with Trump “because he resists science, evidence, data, truth”

Also in her interview with the incoming speaker, NBC’s Guthrie asked Pelosi what it’s like to negotiate with Trump.

GUTHRIE: Talk about your dynamics with President Trump…What's it like to negotiate with him?

PELOSI: When you're negotiating with someone, you have to know-- you stipulate to some fact. It's hard to do that with the president, because he resists science, evidence, data, truth… It's hard to pin the president down on the facts… I think and hope that we can work together in a positive way or-- now that the president is more acclimated to the fact that-- he's dealing with-- a Democratic majority in the Congress of the United States.

Also in the interview, Pelosi seemed more open to Robert Mueller’s potential ability to indict a sitting president (“I think that that is an open discussion. I think that is an open discussion in terms of the law”) than House Democrats trying to impeach the president (“Well, we have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report. We shouldn't be impeaching for a political reason”). That’s pretty telling.

Per NBC’s Alex Moe, here’s a tick-tock of what to expect on this first day of the 116th Congress: “The House will gavel in at noon and Democrats will take back control of the chamber for the first time since 2011... After the House convenes, members will be called by name alphabetically to cast their vote verbally unlike typical House votes that are done electronically. This rollcall for Speaker will begin at ROUGHLY 12:45pm and we should have the results just before 2pm. The Speaker will then give brief remarks, take the oath and then swear in all members and delegates of the 116th Congress on the House floor.”

Trump vs. Romney

Beyond the shutdown, the other drama in Washington is the GOP fight between President Trump and Mitt Romney. It started on Tuesday night with Romney’s op-ed in the Washington Post. “It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office,” he wrote.

Trump fired back over Twitter, “Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!” (Note: Romney won 47.2 percent of the popular vote in 2012, while Trump got 45.9 percent in 2016.)

And RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel – Romney’s niece – chimed in:

The 2020 race: Who’s in, who’s out and who are we still waiting on?

With Elizabeth Warren launching her exploratory committee on Monday, she became the fourth major Democrat – and the first top-tier one – who has either filed paperwork for 2020 or has formally announced a bid. Here are the four:

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney (who announced his presidential bid back on July 28, 2017!!!!)
  • Failed Dem congressional candidate Richard Ojeda (who filed his FEC paperwork on November 11 – a week after losing his bid in West Virginia)
  • Former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julian Castro (who launched his exploratory committee on December 12 – and who will formally announce his decision on January 12

And here are other expected candidates or folks we’re watching (in no particular order):

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
  • Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas
  • Former VP Joe Biden
  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
  • Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
  • Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg
  • Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
  • Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
  • Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe
  • Tom Steyer
  • Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu
  • Current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti
  • South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
  • Outgoing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper
  • Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii

Possible 2020 Dems who have *declined* to run:

  • Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick
  • Attorney Michael Avenatti

Elizabeth Warren heads to Iowa this weekend

Following the launch of her exploratory committee, NBC’s Mike Memoli reports that Warren travels to Iowa this weekend, hitting Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Storm Lake and Des Moines.

And Warren appeared with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last night. Some highlights:

“I want to be in this fight, because this is, in my view, the fundamental question that faces our country: Who does Washington work for? You can see what the trap is. Why does the trap continue year after year after year? And the answer is because Washington is working great, fabulously, for the wealthy and the well-connected. They have bought the government they want. They have bought the rules that they want. I think that Washington ought to work for everybody else.”

More from Warren: “Is this going to be a Democratic primary that truly is a grassroots movement that is funded by the grassroots, that's done with grassroots volunteers, or is this going to be something that's just one more play thing that billionaires can buy? So I think this is a moment for all of the Democratic nominees, as they come into the race, to say, in a Democratic primary, we are going to link arms, and we're going to say grassroots funding, no to the billionaires. No to the billionaires, whether they are self-funding or whether they're funding PACs.”

Bernie Sanders is already getting scrutiny he didn’t receive in 2016

Meanwhile, before Bernie Sanders has even jumped into the 2020 race (and it remains a question if he ultimately runs), he already seems to be getting more scrutiny than he did in 2016. The New York Times: “Accounts like Ms. Di Lauro’s — describing episodes of sexual harassment and demeaning treatment as well as pay disparity in Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign — have circulated in recent weeks in emails, online comments and private discussions among former supporters. Now, as the Vermont senator tries to build support for a second run at the White House, his perceived failure to address this issue has damaged his progressive bona fides, delegates and nearly a dozen former state and national staff members said in interviews over the last month.”

“In an interview Wednesday night on CNN, Mr. Sanders said he was proud of his 2016 campaign and attributed any missteps with staff members to the explosive growth that was sometimes overwhelming. ‘I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right, in terms of human resources,’ he told Anderson Cooper.”

“‘I certainly apologize to any woman who felt she was not treated appropriately, and of course if I run we will do better the next time,’ he said. Asked if he knew about the staff complaints, he said, ‘I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.’”

That is some kind of answer: “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.” Wow.

Terry McAuliffe fires a shot at the left: Democrats need a “realistic, optimistic and focused” message

Don’t miss this Washington Post op-ed from former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who could also run for president in 2020.

“After two years of President Trump’s grandiose bluster, bluffing and buffoonery, Americans elected candidates who ran as optimistic, progressive problem-solvers focused on results central to families: health care, work, education and taxes. We need to be big, bold and optimistic, but that can’t come at the expense of being honest with the American people,” McAuliffe writes. “I believe the only way that Trump will win reelection is if Democrats give up their credibility as serious and focused on results that impact people’s lives. Ideological populism or relentless negativity are playing on Trump’s turf. The reality-show star will always win that race to the bottom.”

He concludes, “While I haven’t decided whether to be a candidate myself, I will be closely watching our side and working to ensure that the Democratic message is realistic, optimistic and focused on helping all Americans. The stakes are simply too high to lose a race to the bottom.”

NBC’s year-end status report on the Mueller investigation

Finally, while all of today’s political attention is on the government shutdown, the new Congress and the emerging 2020 race, don’t forget about the Mueller probe.

And NBC’s Ken Dilanian offers this year-end status of Mueller’s investigation. “The Mueller probe has led to criminal charges against 33 people, including three of those original four [Manafort, Flynn, Papadopoulos], and engulfed the Trump administration in a legal and political morass unlike anything the country has witnessed since the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and before that, Watergate.”

“But a central question remains unanswered, and it's one that could hold the key to what happens over the next few months: What did FBI officials know in the summer of 2016 that dissuaded them from telling Trump they were investigating his top aides? The world may soon know the answer. Government officials and others familiar with the situation tell NBC News that Mueller is nearing the end stages of his investigation, and a report by the special counsel is expected to be submitted to the Justice Department as early as mid-February.”