First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter
GOP Congress is still looking for direction from Trump
The good news for the Trump White House is that it’s experienced its least controversial week over the last few days. Yes, that’s a low bar, but there’s been no bombshell Russia-related story (though check out the CNN report below), and the president has tweeted less (though there’s this one from this morning). But here’s the bad news for Team Trump: In this honeymoon phase, the GOP’s most significant legislative priorities are, well, in trouble. On Obamacare, former House Speaker John Boehner dropped this truth bomb: “[T]hey’ll fix Obamacare. I shouldn’t call it repeal and replace because that’s not what’s going to happen. They’re basically going to fix the flaws and put a more conservative box around it.” And on tax reform, President Trump seemed to warm to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan in a Reuters interview, but those encouraging words from Trump might be a little too late given this solid GOP opposition (see here, here and here).
As Rich Lowry writes in Politico, it’s up to a president to provide direction to congressional Republicans on key legislative priorities. “Capitol Hill is dependent on Trump, not just to sign bills, but to lead. Republican don’t need him merely to be president; they need him to be a good president, which means that in his busy days he must find a little time for Congress.” This is maybe the biggest thing to watch for in Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday — does he provide that direction?
A bigger problem than Bill Clinton’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch?
Remember all the attention that Bill Clinton’s tarmac meeting with Obama Attorney Loretta Lynch? Well, this news from CNN appears to be just as big of a story — if not bigger. “The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN… The discussions between the White House and the bureau began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after the stories were published, according to a US law enforcement official.”
Why is this a big deal? “The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts. Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations.”
The White House: It was the FBI who pulled Priebus aside
Per NBC’s Peter Alexander, the White House has released this explanation: “While over at the White House on other business, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe asked Reince Priebus if he could set aside five minutes at the end of the meeting to discuss another topic,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer says. “After the meeting, McCabe took Priebus to the side and said that the New York Times reports on contacts with Russians was overblown and not supported by any evidence the FBI had. Priebus asked McCabe at that meeting if they could clear it up and get the real information out. McCabe said he would think about it and talk to him later. Later that afternoon, McCabe called Priebus back and said even though it was bad information, they could not go on the record because the FBI did not want to get in the business of calling balls and strikes on reporting.”
This White House explanation raises the question: So what’s worse — the White House asking the FBI to publicly knock down a story, or the FBI pulling aside a top White House official to comment on the big story of the day? Just ask yourself: If you substituted Clinton’s and Lynch’s names for Priebus’ and McCabe’s, would the congressional hearings already be scheduled?
Important context from NBC’s Ken Dilanian
“NBC News was told by law enforcement and intelligence sources that the NYT story WAS wrong — in its use of the term ‘Russian intelligence officials.’ Our sources say there were contacts with Russians, but that the US hasn’t confirmed they work for spy agencies. We were also told CNN’s description of Trump aides being in ‘constant touch’ with Russians was overstated. However, our sources did tell us that intelligence intercepts picked up contacts among Trump aides and Russians during the campaign.”
Trump addresses CPAC on Day 2
President Trump becomes the first sitting GOP president since Reagan to speak at CPAC in his first year in office. The speech takes place at 10:00 am ET. Other speakers include the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre (at 12:55 pm ET) and KT McFarland (at 7:30 pm ET). And here are some of the colorful names of the particular panels: “Prosecutors Gone Wild” (Friday at 11:20 am ET) and “Armed and Fabulous: The New Normal” (Friday at 1:35 pm ET).
Everything you need to know about Saturday’s DNC chair race
Tomorrow brings us the election for DNC chair in Atlanta – a race that has produced more tension outside the party than inside of it. NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald has everything you need to know about the contest, especially how it works:
“The filing deadline for candidates closed Tuesday night and the DNC announced who made the ballot on Wednesday. In addition to [Keith] Ellison and [Tom] Perez, other hopefuls are South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigeig, … Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Sally Boynton Brown, TV commentator Jehmu Greene, activist Sam Ronan and election lawyer Peter Peckarsky. To qualify for the ballot, candidates needed only 20 signatures from DNC members.” (South Carolina Chair Jaime Harrison dropped out of the contest yesterday and endorsed Perez.)
Who gets to vote?
“Only the 447 members of the DNC get to cast a ballot. Members include state party officers, local activists, donors and some elected officials. Few members are well-known outside local party circles. Some are elected to the DNC, while others are appointed to represent certain groups, such as labor unions.”
How do you win?
“To win, a candidate needs simple majority of the total number of votes. If all 447 DNC members cast ballots, that makes 224 the magic number. If some members can’t make it to Atlanta and don’t end up voting by proxy, the win number will be smaller.”
What if no one gets a majority?
“With a big field and two roughly evenly matched front-runners, it’s very likely no candidate will be get a majority on the first ballot. That means DNC members will have to vote a second, third or fourth time — possibly more. They’ll keep casting new rounds of ballots until one candidate emerges with a majority. After two rounds of voting, the party will start eliminating the lowest-voting getting candidate for each new round.”
Also taking place tomorrow — the state Senate special election in Delaware
On Saturday, Republican John Marino faces off against Democrat Stephanie Hansen in a race that will decide which party controls Delaware’s state Senate. Given the stakes, Democrats have spent considerable money to support Hansen, and Vice President Biden has campaigned for her. A Democratic win would validate the idea that the party is motivated after Trump’s victory in November (Marino narrowly lost a bid for state Senate in 2014). But a Dem loss would be embarrassing in this blue state, especially given the resources and attention they’ve given the race. While this is a local race, Hansen has tried to nationalize it (see here).