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From the USPS to Kanye, Trump's moves look like his eyes are on November

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.
President Donald Trump answers questions at the White House on Aug. 12, 2020.
President Donald Trump answers questions at the White House on Aug. 12, 2020.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With the conventions and the true sprint to the general election approaching, it’s a good time to take stock of the things President Donald Trump, his campaign and his administration have done that could influence the mechanics of the November election.

And we’ll note here: We’re not talking about the standard things — whether you think they’re ethical or not — that campaigns have historically done, like filing lawsuits to argue for voting rules that boost their political interests, or using their message in a way designed to depress the other side’s turnout.

We’re talking about tangible, deliberate, and unusual decisions made by the current president or his allies that could have an impact on the vote less than three months from now.

Here’s a taste of what we’re talking about, just from the last few weeks:

  • Trump installed a new Postmaster General (who was a campaign donor) who instituted new cost-saving measures that have slowed mail delivery nationwide and sparked fears about absentee ballot delays.
  • He explicitly said yesterday that he would block proposed emergency funding for the Postal Service, adding that USPS doesn’t “have the money to do the universal mail-in voting. So therefore, they can’t do it, I guess.
  • He appeared to put more stock in an intelligence report finding that China prefers a Biden presidency than in Russian efforts to denigrate Biden, despite intelligence officials saying that pro-Trump election interference from Russia “was the far graver, and more immediate, threat.
  • He equated foreign interference from Russia to Democrats “meddling” in the election because they are promoting mail-in balloting during the pandemic.
  • He suggested in a tweet that Florida’s mail-in ballots are more trustworthy than other states’ because Florida has had “two great Republican governors.”
  • The president’s son-in-law reportedly met in person with Kanye West, who is trying to get on ballots nationwide and recently did not deny that he’s doing so as a spoiler to Biden’s campaign.
  • GOP operatives in at least four states have aided West’s attempts to get on the 2020 ballot

Individually, maybe there could be alternative explanations for some of these actions. By itself, the USPS overhaul, for example, seems like it could plausibly be more about Trump’s feud with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos than about the election.

(Then again, this is what Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said last week to the Postal Service governing board, after insisting that the USPS has the capacity to handle unprecedented volume of mail ballots: “However, as discussed, we cannot correct the errors of the Election Boards if they fail to deploy processes that take our normal processing and delivery standards into account.” That’s a shrug at best… and a veiled threat at worst. )

Taken as a whole, it’s hard to look at the list above and not see something that’s a cause for alarm.

And maybe what’s most alarming is that these are just the actions that we know about, because they’re being done so openly.

A disconnect in debate expectations

Of course, the big event yesterday was the first joint appearance of the newly-minted Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

And their sharp attacks on the president yesterday — in what the Washington Post describes as “the most crisp and focused speeches either has given during the presidential campaign” — highlighted an ironic difference between the two when it comes to setting expectations for the upcoming presidential debates.

In the 2020 primary cycle, Joe Biden — whose debate performances were unreliable at best — benefited from low expectations. Biden seemed to always just clear the low bar set for him in contrast to younger and more agile candidates.

And that low bar has gotten even lower, entirely because of the Trump strategy of framing Biden as “mentally shot” and unable to “put two sentences together.” (Were there really many folks who watched yesterday’s joint event and came away with that take?)

For Harris, though, it may be Democrats who are making the unwise strategic move on debate expectations. By gleefully predicting that Harris will “shred Mike Pence” in the debate and “have him for breakfast,” they may be doing her the opposite of the same favor that Trump is doing for Biden.

(Remember when political experts predicted that trial lawyer John Edwards would wipe the floor with Dick Cheney in their sole debate in 2004? That’s... not quite how that went.)

Taking stock

We’re not usually fans of reading too much into the whims of Wall Street. But we couldn’t help noticing yesterday that the financial markets didn’t exactly panic at the Harris pick.

Markets yesterday had a fine day, rallying a bit after a slump earlier in the week.

The Wall Street Journal writes that the relatively warm welcome “reflects some relief that in choosing Ms. Harris, Mr. Biden has — for now at least — fended off the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has called for tougher financial regulation.”

More: “As Mr. Biden’s running mate, they see a noncontroversial partner — closely aligned with him on the issues nearest and dearest to their hearts — and an asset with big donors.”

Progressives will hardly love seeing the story’s warm and fuzzy quotes from CEOs, although it may be true that any pick other than Elizabeth Warren might have had the same effect.

But what’s most noteworthy to us: If the GOP strategy is to brand Biden and Harris as “socialists” and “radical left-wing liberals,” the markets certainly don’t seem to be buying it one bit.

Ad Watch with Ben Kamisar

Now that the Biden/Harris ticket is embarking on the mission of introducing its new vice presidential pick to the rest of the country, it’s worth taking a look back at how Harris defined herself during her presidential campaign.

The Californian’s top TV ad during the primary was a biographical spot that connected her mother’s persistence with the persistence of American families.

It mainly touted her “3 a.m. Agenda,” a plan aimed at assuaging the late-night worries of Americans by repealing the Trump tax cuts to cut middle class taxes, enacting Medicare for All (her plan also allowed people to have private insurance), and promoting equal pay for women.

Tweet of the Day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

5,213,248: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 45,817 more cases than yesterday morning.)

166,807: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,141 more than yesterday morning.)

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

211,500: The number of “excess deaths,” deaths above normal levels, in America from March 15 to August 1, leading to questions as to whether America has seen more coronavirus-related deaths than the official count can capture.

17: The number of consecutive days that America’s coronavirus death count has been at least 1,000, per The Washington Post.

13: The number of new coronavirus infections in New Zealand since yesterday, days after the country hit 100 days without any community spread.

25: The number of personal letters between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un obtained by journalist Bob Woodward while writing his new book.

See you in September?

With the lack of activity on Capitol Hill, there could be no coronavirus relief until September, NBC’s Hill team reports.

Pressed about whether September 30 — when government funding is set to expire — has become the new de facto deadline for resolving the relief impasse, Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt reluctantly told reporters that “that’s the likelihood,” although he acknowledged not having a front seat to the negotiations.

And the White House and Democrats can’t seem to even agree on why they haven’t restarted negotiations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that in a call with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, “An overture was made by Secretary Mnuchin to meet and he made clear that his televised comments from earlier today still stand: the White House is not budging from their position concerning the size and scope of a legislative package.”

They claim it’s the lack of movement on the budget of the bill that’s stopped the negotiations. But Mnuchin claimed that Democrats are the stubborn ones stopping talks from going forward.

“Earlier today, Speaker Pelosi and I spoke by phone. Her statement is not an accurate reflection of our conversation. She made clear that she was unwilling to meet to continue negotiations unless we agreed in advance to her proposal, costing at least $2 trillion,” Mnuchin said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the federal weekly unemployment benefit has expired for Americans across the country, schools are beginning to reopen without further federal aid and there have been no additions made to the Paycheck Protection Program.

The Lid: Socialists, anarchists, elitists, oh my!

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we explored the not-so-coordinated messages from the GOP about Kamala Harris.

Shameless Plug: Coronavirus and the classroom

Tonight, NBC’s Lester Holt will anchor an NBC News primetime special at 8pm ET/7pm CT on NBC and NBC News NOW. The hour-long special, “Coronavirus and the Classroom,” will feature NBC News correspondents, newsmakers and additional experts sharing practical guidance for kids, parents and teachers as they navigate the return to school during the pandemic.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world?

Belarusians continue to protest the country’s recent election despite a brutal crackdown.

President Trump is reportedly considering replacing Defense Sec. Mark Esper after the election, Reuters reports.

The Air Force says one of its helicopters was shot at, injuring a crew member, while flying over Virginia on Wednesday.

The worst may be to come for state governments struggling to stay afloat amid the pandemic.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s staff says Marjorie Taylor Green, the Georgia Republican nominee for a House seat who has spoken supportively of the QAnon conspiracy theory, will be allowed to join the GOP conference and its committees if elected despite her past racist and anti-Islamic comments.

The coronavirus pandemic may have upended the future of movie production, prompting big changes in narrative.