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.
How much are Trump’s woes hurting the GOP? Watch Montana and Georgia to find out
If you thought you couldn’t keep up with the Trump-related news over the last week, just consider all of these new developments in the last 12-14 hours:
- Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller III, to oversee the investigation into Russia’ interference in the 2016 election, per NBC’s Pete Williams and Ken Dilanian.
- Former Trump aides Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort have emerged as key figures in the probe that Mueller will lead, NBC’s Tom Winter and Ken Dilanian write.
- Flynn told Trump’s transition, on Jan. 4 (so before the inauguration), that he was under investigation for working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey — before being tapped as Trump’s national security adviser, according to the New York Times.
- As Trump’s national security adviser, Flynn rejected — 10 days before Trump took office — an Obama administration plan to fight ISIS that Turkey opposed, per McClatchy.
- Reuters reports that Flynn and other Trump campaign advisers were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls or emails during the last seven months of the 2016 campaign.
- And the No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), said this in June 2016: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump,” according to a recording the Washington Post obtained. (McCarthy has said he was joking.)
Got all of that? Phew. And while the news — especially regarding the special counsel — means this story is a LONG way before being resolved, we’ll get our first test of how it’s playing politically outside of Washington in next week’s special congressional election in Montana, as well as the June 20 special election in Georgia. A Republican loss in one or both of these races would produce additional political tremors for GOP leaders. And Democrats getting swept would raise this question: If you can’t win competitive races in THIS environment, when can you win them? As our colleague Steve Kornacki reminds us, it was a special election in Ohio in 1974 that convinced Washington that Nixon had become politically toxic.
Dem, GOP candidates have taken fundamentally different views on Trump/Comey/Russia
While the Trump/Comey/Russia news has been on the backburner in these two races in Montana (where observers say the GOP is ahead by single digits) and Georgia (which is a true 50%-50% race), the Democratic and GOP candidates have taken fundamentally different views on these subjects.
Montana (race to replace Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke) — May 25
- GOP candidate Greg Gianforte: “The American people and the people in the FBI had lost confidence in [Comey’s] leadership. I support the president in his decision to ask him to leave,” Mr. Gianforte said in an interview,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
- Dem candidate Rob Quist: “Greg Gianforte has refused to support an independent investigation and instead has doubled down on his Russian investments. It’s time for [Trump] to come clean and for the American people to know what really happened in 2016.”
More from the Billings Gazette: “‘Rob (Quist) was glad to see former FBI director Mueller appointed today and has long called for an independent investigation into Russia interfering in our presidential election, unlike Greg Gianforte, who refuses to do so,’ said Tina Olechowski, communications director for the Quist campaign. Greg Gianforte’s campaign stopped short of supporting an independent investigation. Shane Scanlon, spokesman for the Gianforte campaign, pointed out that between committees in the Senate and the House, and the probe being conducting by the FBI, there are five investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible ties with Russia.”
Georgia (race to replace HHS Sec. Tom Price) — June 20
- Dem candidate Jon Ossoff: “Comey’s firing raises severe questions. There should be bipartisan support for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference” — via Twitter
- GOP candidate Karen Handel: “It’s been clear for some time that FBI Director Comey has lost the confidence of Republicans, Democrats and broader institutions, and his removal as FBI Director was probably overdue,” she said. “I hope that the president will quickly nominate a strong, independent leader as the next director of the FBI and that the Senate will consider the nomination as quickly as possible.” — statement.
More from the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “In Georgia’s hotly-contested 6th District race, Republican Karen Handel on Thursday applauded the Justice Department’s decision. ‘It is important that all the facts are brought to light in the Russia investigation,’ she said in a statement, ‘and I am encouraged that the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller will facilitate this process and help ensure this occurs.'”
For Trump, a special counsel presents pros and cons
The news of Mueller as special counsel presents a couple of potential benefits to Team Trump. One, it gives them a P.R. out when Trump/Russia news develops. They can say, “This is a matter the special counsel is looking into. We have no comment.” Two, if there’s NOTHING to all of these stories, someone of Mueller’s credibility will give Trump a clean political bill of health heading into 2018 or even 2020.
But here’s the BIG disadvantage: The investigation is now mostly out of Team Trump’s hands — the Justice Department has ceded control to Mueller, though Trump could fire him. And an investigation out of your control is always dangerous.
Trump: “This is the single great witch hunt of a politician in American history”
This morning, President Trump tweeted: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel [sic] appointed!” And he added, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” Reminder No. 1: No one from the Clinton campaign and no top Obama White House official was EVER charged with a crime. Reminder No. 2: Here are some of the political witch hunts in American history (real or imagined) that might give the current news a run for its money: McCarthyism, Watergate, Whitewater/Lewinsky, Valerie Plame leak, Benghazi.
At 3:45 pm ET, President Trump holds a news conference with Colombian President Santos.
It’s a tight race in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary
Tom Perriello gets support from 40% of likely primary voters, while Ralph Northam gets 38%, according to a new Washington Post poll. More than 20% are undecided. The primary takes place on June 13.