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Takeaway from the Oval Office showdown: Trump still hasn't accepted his midterm defeat

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: President Trump meets with Schumer and Pelosi at the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump talks to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker designate Nancy Pelosi in the Oval Office on Dec. 11, 2018.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — By now, you’ve heard the takeaways from yesterday’s battle royale at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue involving President Donald Trump, House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over Trump’s border wall and a potential government shutdown.

Welcome to divided government! (“Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats,” Pelosi interjected.) Trump owns any future government shutdown, because he said so! (“I’m going to shut it down for border security.”) He lost control of the narrative on his own turf! (“You just said my way or shut down the government,” Schumer observed.) Vice President Mike Pence, also in the room, was auditioning for a Southwest Airlines commercial. (Thought bubble: “Wanna get away?”)

But to us, there’s a more fundamental takeaway to yesterday’s Thunderdome in the Oval Office: It appears Trump still hasn’t accepted his defeat from the midterms and what that means for his agenda beginning next year.

PELOSI: [Republicans] are losing their offices now because of the transition. People are not — the morale is not —

TRUMP: And we've gained in the Senate. Nancy, we've gained in the Senate. Excuse me. Did we win the Senate? We won the Senate.

SCHUMER: When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he's in real trouble.

TRUMP: I did.

PELOSI: Let me say this.

TRUMP: We did win North Dakota and Indiana.

Here’s a reminder of what happened in last month’s midterms: Republicans lost a net of 40 House seats, losing control of that chamber of Congress; they lost the House popular vote by nearly 9 percentage points, 53.4 percent to 44.9 percent; and while they gained Senate seats, Republicans go from the 52-48 majority they enjoyed at the beginning of the 2017-2018 cycle to 53-47 next year — despite one of the most favorable Senate maps in generations.

Bottom line: It was the same kind of “thumping” that George W. Bush recognized back in 2006, and similar to the “shellacking” Barack Obama admitted receiving in 2010. But Trump has yet to concede what really happened in the midterms and how that means divided government in 2019-2020.

And that divided government takes away leverage he might have in any shutdown fight. As Schumer explained to reporters after the meeting, if there’s a shutdown, House Democrats next year can pass a clean continuing resolution to fund the government — and dare Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to oppose it.

“We said, Mr. President, if you shut down the government, Leader Pelosi will pass a clean CR in January to end the Trump shutdown and put responsibility in Leader McConnell’s lap,” Schumer said.

Elections, after all, do have consequences.

The president links his border wall to Iran and attack in France

Today, meanwhile, Trump seems a bit desperate about that border wall.

“Another very bad terror attack in France. We are going to strengthen our borders even more. Chuck and Nancy must give us the votes to get additional Border Security!” he tweeted.

“The Democrats and President Obama gave Iran 150 Billion Dollars and got nothing, but they can’t give 5 Billion Dollars for National Security and a Wall?” the president added. (In fact, the money that Iran received from the nuclear deal was a freeing up of Iranian assets — with $150 billion being on the high range of estimates — in return for Iran halting its nuclear ambitions.)

Still, Trump is on the verge of achieving a significant bipartisan victory

Despite yesterday’s heated showdown at the White House and despite Trump not acknowledging the realities of his midterm defeat, the president is on the verge of a significant bipartisan legislative victory. “Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky reversed course on Tuesday and said that the Senate would vote on a criminal justice bill before the end of the year, stiff-arming some of his hard-line conservatives and teeing up a bipartisan policy achievement that has eluded lawmakers for years,” per the New York Times.

“Advocates of the proposed prison and sentencing law changes on Capitol Hill and in the White House have spent weeks lobbying Mr. McConnell, the majority leader who controls the Senate calendar. Crucially, they had the backing of President Trump, who urged Mr. McConnell in recent days to ‘go for it Mitch!’ — offering cover to conservative lawmakers who were reluctant to roll back some of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and ’90s.

But compare this potential bipartisan victory with Trump’s tweets this morning on the border wall. He’s more interested in divisive politics than consensus.

John Kelly to remain as White House chief of staff through January — and maybe longer?

The Washington Post: “White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly will remain in the job through at least Jan. 2 to ensure ‘a very peaceful and pragmatic transition’ for his successor, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday ... ‘He will stay on the job through Jan. 2 at least, and I think there will be a very peaceful and pragmatic transition to the next chief of staff,’ she said.”

Football fans: This is akin to firing a head coach in the middle of the season; trying to make the offensive coordinator the interim coach; having that offensive coordinator refuse the job; and then asking the fired head coach to serve out the remainder of the season.

Trump stands by Saudi crown prince the day that Khashoggi is tapped Time’s 'Person of the Year'

“U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he stood by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince despite a CIA assessment that he ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and pleas from U.S. senators for Trump to condemn the kingdom’s de facto ruler,” per Reuters.

“Trump refused to comment on whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the murder, but he provided perhaps his most explicit show of support for the prince since Khashoggi’s death more than two months ago. ‘He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally,’ Trump said in an interview in the Oval Office.”

“Asked by Reuters if standing by the kingdom meant standing by the prince, known as MbS, Trump responded: ‘Well, at this moment, it certainly does.’”

British prime minister faces no-confidence vote

NBC News: “Lawmakers from British Prime Minister Theresa May's party will vote on whether to remove her from power Wednesday. The vote of no-confidence in her leadership comes amid the widening chaos over the manner of the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union. If May loses, she will have to step down as prime minister. It was triggered when at least 48 Conservative colleagues wrote letters demanding a vote.”

Think about all of the political instability right now in the West — in Britain, in France, in Germany and even in the United States.

Talk about Putin’s latest victory…

Update in NC-9: Witness says operative held onto 800 absentee ballots

“McCrae Dowless, the man whose ‘get-out-the-vote’ activities are the center of the election fraud investigation in North Carolina, told a local political campaign volunteer that he was holding onto 800 absentee ballots, according to a new affidavit obtained by NBC News,” per NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell, Rich Gardella and Ben Kamisar.

“In the signed statement, Kenneth Simmons said that he met Dowless at a local Republican Party meeting in the small town of Dublin. Dublin is located in Bladen County, the epicenter of the election fraud investigation involving absentee ballots. During that interaction, Simmons wrote, he and his wife saw Dowless with a large number of absentee ballots ‘in his possession.’”

“Simmons stated that he asked Dowless why he had so many ballots and that Dowless responded that he was holding onto more than 800. Simmons wrote that he ‘asked him why he had not turned them in” and that Dowless replied: ‘You don’t do that until the last day because the opposition would know how many votes they had to make up.’”