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No hoax: Why the Russia investigation remains one of Trump's biggest scandals

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: Robert Mueller
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 presidential election on July 24, 2019.Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Russia investigation, which began this summer four years ago, is back in the news — with President Trump on Friday commuting Roger Stone’s prison sentence, with Robert Mueller’s op-ed defending Stone’s prosecution, and even with Jeff Sessions’ Senate runoff tomorrow in Alabama.

And despite everything that’s happened since Mueller concluded his probe in early 2019 (including Trump’s impeachment over Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic), that investigation remains one of the biggest political scandals in generations.

Here are the indisputable facts:

  1. Trump and his campaign asked for Russia’s help in the 2016 presidential race. ("Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing"; "If it's what you say, I love it.")
  2. Trump and his campaign got that help — in a contest decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. ("Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks.”)
  3. Roger Stone lied about his contacts with Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks. (“He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases,” Mueller wrote in his op-ed.)
  4. The president commuted Stone’s prison sentence, despite White House aides disagreeing with the move. (“Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency,” the White House said on Friday.)
  5. And Stone admitted his objective was protecting Trump. (“[Trump] knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t,” Stone told NBC News analyst Howard Fineman before his sentence was commuted.)

Yes, some of the liberal theories about Russia investigation never came to pass (Michael Cohen didn’t travel to Prague; that “pee tape” appears to be fantasy).

And, yes, Mueller concluded that his investigation didn’t establish “that that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (Though note he said “Russian government” and not intermediaries like WikiLeaks.)

But what did happen was a bigger scandal — involving a foreign adversary — than we can remember for any recent administration or major presidential campaign.

“An American private citizen worked with foreign spies to damage one presidential candidate and help the other,” David Frum writes of Stone in The Atlantic.

“That president accepted the help. When caught, the private citizen lied. When the private citizen was punished, the president commuted his sentence.”

The Trump White House vs. Fauci: It’s now come to this

The Trump White House is dropping oppo on Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“In a remarkable broadside by the Trump administration against one of its own, a White House official said Sunday that ‘several White House officials are concerned about the number of times Dr. Fauci has been wrong on things.’ The official gave NBC News a list of nearly a dozen past comments by Fauci that the official said had ultimately proven erroneous,” NBC’s Josh Lederman and Kelly O’Donnell report.

“Among them: Fauci's comments in January that the coronavirus was ‘not a major threat’ and his guidance in March that ‘people should not be walking around with masks.’”

But if we’re recalling months-old statements about the coronavirus, don’t forget this February tweet from President Trump: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”

Or how about Trump retweeting a game-show host on the coronavirus?

By the way, here were the fav/unfav numbers for Trump and Fauci in the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:

  • Trump: 40 percent positive, 51 percent negative (-11)
  • Fauci: 50 percent positive, 11 percent negative (+39)

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

3,316,989: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 183,677 more cases than Friday morning.)

136,046: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,982 more than Friday morning.)

40.28 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

15,299: The number of new cases reported Sunday in Florida, shattering state-by-state daily records.

Tweet of the day

2020 Vision: Team Tuberville outspends Sessions

Tomorrow is the Senate runoff between Republicans Tommy Tuberville and Jeff Sessions.

And NBC’s Ben Kamisar breaks down the ad spending in the contest.

Through today, Tuberville’s campaign has spent $872,000 on the TV and radio airwaves, while the Club for Growth (which has endorsed the former college football coach) has spent another $692,000 according to Advertising Analytics.

Meanwhile, the Sessions camp has spent $760,000.

It’s similar to the trend we saw in the first round of the primary, when Tuberville led the ad-spending pack. But now it’s crunch time, with the winner punching a ticket to run against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the most favorable, offensive opportunity Republicans have this cycle.

Team Sessions is throwing the oppo book against the wall, dropping new ads in recent weeks highlighting a recent New York Times story that detailed some negative headlines from Tubverville’s time in hedge funds, as well as a spot that takes a swipe at Tuberville’s coaching record.

But the question is: Will that be enough to defeat Tuberville, who has been trumpeting President Trump’s endorsement and echoing the president’s criticism of Sessions over his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation?

Lindsey Graham calls for Mueller to testify (again)

The Mueller investigation has been over for quite a long time, but Robert Mueller’s time on Capitol Hill seems to be continuing.

After Mueller defended his investigation and Roger Stone’s conviction in a Washington Post op-ed on Saturday, Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham will be calling for Mueller to testify in front of the committee — a request that Democrats made in the midst of the Mueller report. Originally, Graham had denied that request.

"Apparently Mr. Mueller is willing — and also capable — of defending the Mueller investigation through an oped in the Washington Post," Graham tweeted on Sunday. "Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have previously requested Mr. Mueller appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about his investigation. That request will be granted."

Mueller’s op-ed came after the president commuted Stone’s sentence over the weekend. Graham defended that commutation as well, tweeting, “In my view it would be justified if President @realDonaldTrump decided to commute Roger Stone's prison sentence.”

You can read more about this here.

The Lid: Don’t call it a comeback

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when we looked at whether Trump can still mount a comeback in the 2020 race – or whether he’s crossed the point of no return.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

Brad Parscale has hit a rough patch as Trump’s campaign manager, the Washington Post writes.

The president’s efforts to woo Latino voters are being met with some skepticism.

The White House has lifted a ban on silencers sold to private overseas buyers. The New York Times looks at how the change came about.

Senate Republicans are coming to terms with their big deficit on digital fundraising.

Politico writes that Mark Meadows is discovering the pitfalls of the chief-of-staff job.