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.
The special congressional election in Georgia to fill the seat vacated by HHS Secretary Tom Price takes place on April 18 (early voting has already started) — and it's a canary in the coal mine for next year's midterms, as well as a referendum of sorts on President Trump.
It most likely will go to a June 20 runoff if no one gets more than 50% of the vote on April 18, but there is a chance that Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former congressional national security staffer, could get close to that percentage. Ossoff's ads have directly targeted Trump. "Donald Trump doesn't represent our values," Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) says to the camera in one of these ads. "That's why I'm supporting Jon Ossoff." In another ad, Ossoff says, "When President Trump embarrasses our country or acts recklessly, I'll hold him accountable." Republicans first targeted Ossoff by resurfacing video of him drinking and acting out as Han Solo during his college days. And now a Republican outside group has doubled its spending with this ad tying him to Nancy Pelosi.
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Democrats winning this race would send shockwaves through Congress, given that HHS Secretary Price carried this Atlanta-area district with 62% of the vote in 2016, although Trump won it by just one point (48%-47%). The bad news on the timing of this special election for the GOP: It's coming at such a low point for Trump and Republicans. The good news: If they lose this race, it will open every Republican's eyes about the political environment — and a year and a half before the 2018 midterms. The crowded GOP field to replace Tom Price includes former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, state Sen. Judson Hill, former state Sen. Dan Moody (whom U.S. Sen. David Perdue is backing in this new TV ad), and businessman Bob Gray (whom the Club for Growth, which is already attacking Handel, is supporting).
But an important reminder: What happens in special elections doesn't predict the outcome of a midterm election. Indeed, back in 2010, Democrats won a highly contested special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA). But that Democratic victory didn't stop the GOP from its huge midterm victories that year.
The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza makes an important observation about the activities of — and controversies surrounding — House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA): They've effectively shut down the House panel after FBI Director James Comey's explosive testimony a week ago. "'We've been frozen,' Jim Himes, a Democratic representative from Connecticut who is a member of the Committee, said... "We're all still mystified. We get back on Monday and no information has been shared with Democrats, Republicans, staff," Himes [added]… He said that, since the bombshell claims by Comey and Rogers, 'everything has been about muddying the waters and stopping us from proceeding.'"
The Senate's Intel panel is functioning, however: At 2:30 pm ET, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee (Sen. Richard Burr) and the top Democrat (Sen. Mark Warner) hold a joint press conference to provide an update on their committee's work.
One of the consequences of health care's early legislative defeat is that the political vacuum is being filled by lots and lots of Russia-related stories. And here's another from NBC News: "A bank in Cyprus investigated accounts associated with President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, for possible money-laundering, two banking sources with direct knowledge of his businesses here told NBC News. Manafort — whose ties to a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin are under scrutiny — was associated with at least 15 bank accounts and 10 companies on Cyprus, dating back to 2007, the sources said.
MORE: "At least one of those companies was used to receive millions of dollars from a billionaire Putin ally, according to court documents. Banking sources said some transactions on Manafort-associated accounts raised sufficient concern to trigger an internal investigation at a Cypriot bank into potential money laundering activities. After questions were raised, Manafort closed the accounts, the banking sources said." More: "Offshore banking in Cyprus is not illegal, and the island has long been known as a hub for moving money in and out of Russia. Several U.S. lawmakers have raised questions about Manafort's business dealings in Cyprus. A spokesman for Manafort told NBC News in a statement that all the accounts were set up at the direction of clients in Cyprus, a common banking center for Russians and Ukrainians, 'for a legitimate business purpose.'"
This news via Morning Consult hasn't gotten enough attention: "House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday there was a better way to eliminate federal spending on Planned Parenthood than attaching it to a must-pass measure next month to keep the government open. Rather than include a 'defund Planned Parenthood provision on the upcoming bill to fund the federal government, the Wisconsin Republican said Republicans still plan to use their budget reconciliation framework to overhaul health care to stop federal money from flowing to the women's health service provider. 'We think reconciliation is the tool because that gets it in law,' he said, referring to the budget tool that requires just a simple majority in both chambers to reach the president's desk. That's the way to go.'"
NBC News: "Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday formally triggered a two-year process that will take Britain out of the 28-member [European Union] bloc. The move could radically redraw the country's political and economic landscape and exacerbate deep divisions among the electorate."
"Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has launched a major overhaul of the party's organization, which has been stung by recent crises — and the DNC has requested resignation letters from all current staffers," NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald writes. "Party staff routinely see major turnover with a new boss and they had been alerted to expect such a move. However, the mass resignation letters will give Perez a chance to completely remake the DNC's headquarters from scratch. Staffing had already reached unusual lows following a round of post-election layoffs in December."
Per NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, "President Trump is expected to launch a commission Wednesday to address the nation's growing opioid addiction epidemic. An executive order will define the commission's directive to outline recommendations and plans for federal resources, according to sources with the planning. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will serve as chairman of the commission at the president's request, according to sources. President Trump is expected to play a visible role with the commission taking part in events around the country highlighting the crisis of addiction and need to expand treatment. Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who have each spoken out about confronting rising addiction and opioid related deaths in their states, are expected to also donate time to the effort."