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
WASHINGTON — In the Trump Era, so many stories that would have wrecked other presidencies have lasted for just a few days before vanishing from the front-page headlines and cable TV line-ups — at least temporarily. Think of the classified information that President Trump told the Russians in that May Oval Office meeting. Or the Michael Flynn guilty plea. Or “S-hole countries.” Or Stormy Daniels (although she’s back in the news today).
Yet the Rob Porter scandal has now lasted more than a week – the original Daily Mail piece alleging Porter abused his two ex-wives ran on February 6 — and it’s likely to once again dominate today’s White House press briefing. Here are four reasons why this story has had a longer shelf life than the others.
1. The White House still can’t get its timeline straight: Yesterday alone, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the FBI submitted a partial report on its investigation into Porter in March 2017, it completed its background investigation in July 2017, and that it closed its file on Porter in January. Then after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House Personnel Security Office hadn’t made its final recommendations on Porter, a former senior White House official told NBC’s Peter Alexander that the Personnel Security Office doesn’t perform that function. “They don’t do vetting,” the former official said. Bottom line: The story keeps changing.
2. It’s a story about alleged spousal abuse — with pictures and op-eds from the ex-wives: The Trump Era has featured plenty of stories on sex, the treatment of women, ethics problems, conflicts of interest and Russia. But allegations of spousal abuse against a top aide are new, and it’s come with graphic images and extremely detailed on-the-record descriptions from Porter’s ex-wives about the abuse they endured.
3. It’s a national security story: As Business Insider’s Josh Barro has noted, this is also a national-security issue. How did someone facing these allegations — and potential blackmail — get to handle the information that gets to President Trump’s desk?
4. And it epitomizes the chaos and dysfunction inside the White House: Here’s the Washington Post: “Inside the West Wing, a growing number of aides blamed Trump’s second White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, for the bungled handling of the allegations against Porter… Kelly is ‘a big fat liar,’ said one White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid opinion. ‘To put it in terms the general would understand, his handling of the Porter scandal amounts to dereliction of duty.’”
The intelligence community’s stinging rebuke to Trump
FBI Director Wray’s timeline of the FBI’s investigation into Porter wasn’t the only blow the Trump White House received yesterday from the Senate testimony from top intelligence officials.
- Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats: Russia will continue meddling in upcoming U.S. elections. “We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” he said. That stands in contrast to Trump’s declaration from last November that Vladimir Putin “said he didn’t meddle — I asked him again… You can only ask so many times.”
- FBI Director Chris Wray: There is no political bias at the FBI: “I would say that my experience, now six months in with the FBI has validated all my prior experiences with the FBI, which is that it is the finest group of professionals and public servants I could hope to work for. And every day, many many many many times a day, I’m confronted with unbelievable examples of integrity, professionalism and grit. You know there are 37,000 people in the FBI who do unbelievable things all around the world. And although you would never know it from watching the news, we actually have more than two investigations, and most of them do a lot to keep Americans safe.”
- Wray: We continue to have grave concerns about the Nunes memo: “We had then, and continue to have now, grave concerns about the accuracy of the memorandum because of omissions. We provided thousands of documents that were very sensitive… And it’s very hard for anybody to distill all that into three-and-a-half pages,” he said.
Trump’s lawyer said he paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 of his own money
As we mentioned above, Stormy Daniels is back in today’s news — on Valentine’s Day, of all days: “A personal lawyer for President Donald Trump told NBC News on Tuesday night that he paid $130,000 to pornographic film star Stormy Daniels, who has in the past said she had an affair with Trump,” NBC’s Alex Johnson writes.
“In a statement late Tuesday, the lawyer, Michael Cohen, confirmed a report in The New York Times that he made the payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, a month before the 2016 presidential election. ‘Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,’ Cohen said.”
Our questions: So why did Cohen pay Daniels $130,000? How was that payment NOT related to Trump? Why did it occur a month before the presidential election? And how was that timing NOT related to the 2016 race? We know why Cohen is now making this statement: He wants to make it clear that the payment wasn’t a violation of campaign-finance law. But his story doesn’t quite pass the smell test.
Israel’s police recommend bribery charges against Netanyahu
This news out is Israel is a BIG political story inside the United States, given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s prominent role in our domestic politics. “The Israeli police recommended on Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, casting a pall over the future of a tenacious leader who has become almost synonymous with his country. The announcement instantly raised doubts about his ability to stay in office,” the New York Times writes.
“All told, the police accused Mr. Netanyahu of accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts over 10 years. Mr. Netanyahu, addressing the nation live on television shortly before the police released their findings around 9 p.m., made clear that he would not step down. “I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future,” he said, before embarking on a 12-minute defense of his conduct… The police recommendations must now be examined by state prosecutors and the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, a former military prosecutor and onetime Netanyahu aide.”
If Netanyahu gets indicted, that’s a big deal.
Midterm politics creep into Senate’s immigration debate
NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell: “The first day of the Senate’s debate on immigration was quickly sidetracked by midterm campaign politics and tactics that led to no progress on a range of pressing issues that have stymied Congress for months. Republicans’ opening salvo in the debate Tuesday had nothing to do with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s first move was to take aim at so-called sanctuary cities, an issue that could force Democrats seeking reelection in Republican-leaning states into difficult votes.”
More: “Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer quickly objected to McConnell’s attempt to bring up an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would hold back federal funding for cities that don’t report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities. Sanctuary cities are not part of the four “pillars” that President Donald Trump required to be included in any legislation addressing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But it is a politically divisive issue that can be effectively turned into campaign attack ads against lawmakers who support them, particularly in conservative districts or states.”
How does Corker’s re-entry into Tennessee’s Senate race end well for him or his party?
That’s the big question with the news that retiring (?) Sen. Bob Corker might be looking to jump back into Tennessee’s Senate contest. Last night, Corker’s spokesman released this statement, per NBC’s Frank Thorp: “In recent days, people across Tennessee have reached out to Senator Corker with concerns about the outcome of this election because they believe it could determine control of the Senate and the future of our agenda. The senator has been encouraged to reconsider his decision and is listening closely.”
A spokeswoman for Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who is already running for Corker’s seat, fired back, per NBC’s Kasie Hunt: “Anyone who thinks Marsha Blackburn can’t win a general election is just a plain sexist pig. …We aren’t worried about these ego-driven, tired old men. Marsha has spent her whole life fighting people who told her she wasn’t good enough and she will do it again.”
Dems flip another state legislative seat — this time in Florida
While polls are showing better numbers for President Trump and GOP performance on the generic ballot, don’t lose sight of the reality on the ground: Last week, Democrats won a special legislative seat in Missouri. And last night, they won in GOP-leaning Sarasota, Fla.
“By night’s end, Democrat Margaret Good had waltzed into Trump territory and trounced James Buchanan, the son of a GOP congressman, to take the special election for Florida’s House District 72. But the ballot might as well have read Republicans vs. the Blue Wave,” the Miami Herald notes.