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Franklin Graham appears on NBC News' "Today" show. (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/Getty)

This Week in God, 9.22.18

09/22/18 08:00AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at Franklin Graham's effort to defend Brett Kavanaugh against the allegation that he sexually assaulted a young woman when they were teenagers.

That Graham, a prominent Christian evangelist and son of the late Billy Graham, defended Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee was not surprising. That Graham told the Christian Broadcasting Network that an alleged incident from decades past is no longer relevant was predictable, too.

But as the Charlotte Observer  reported, Graham went quite a bit further in trying to exonerate the conservative jurist.

Evangelist Franklin Graham said sexual assault accusations against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh from when he was a teenager are "not relevant" and that the U.S. Senate should confirm his nomination. [...]

Asked by the CBN interviewer what kind of message his remarks send to sexual abuse victims, Graham replied: "Well, there wasn't a crime that was committed. These are two teenagers and it's obvious that she said no and he respected it and walked away."

What's actually "obvious" is that Franklin Graham decided to defend Kavanaugh before reading Christine Blasey Ford's account of the alleged attack. The professor told the Washington Post that Kavanaugh "pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it."

According to her account, Kavanaugh also put his hand over her mouth to prevent her from screaming, and Ford feared, among other things, that he might "inadvertently kill" her.

As the nation came to terms with the report, Graham said of the alleged incident, "[S]he said no and he respected it and walked away." In no way does that reflect Ford's version of events.

It doesn't even reflect Kavanaugh's version of events, since according to the judge, he wasn't at the party and there was no such incident to walk away from.

It's worth noting for context that Graham is a steadfast Trump ally who took a prominent role in defending the president in the wake of the Stormy Daniels revelations. Trump also made a $100,000 personal contribution to a Graham-run charity last year in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 9.21.18

09/21/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* North Carolina: "Florence’s floodwaters breached a dam holding back a large reservoir at a Wilmington power plant Friday, and coal ash from an adjacent dump could be flowing into the nearby Cape Fear River."

* By one account, where things stand in the Supreme Court fight: "The Senate Judiciary Committee is giving Christine Blasey Ford's attorney until the end of the day Friday to work out terms of next week's proposed hearing on Ford's allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, according to a Republican senator."

* Prejudging the outcome: "Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just thoroughly justified Christine Blasey Ford's concerns. In comments Friday, he laid plain his intention to put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, apparently no matter what Ford has to share."

* Preparing for the next round: "In preparation for what may be a high-stakes week of testimony, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has retained an experienced Washington trial attorney, Beth Wilkinson, while the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Christine Blasey Ford, has hired strategist Ricki Seidman, who has Democratic ties and readied Anita Hill to testify in 1991."

* Kavanaugh pal Ed Whelan: "The head of a prominent conservative research organization apologized on Friday for a bizarre string of tweets in which he suggested that the woman accusing Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault might be confusing the judge for one of his high school classmates, whom he posted pictures of and named."

* That's a little weird: "President Donald Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has paid an unannounced visit to the federal courthouse in New York where he pleaded guilty a month ago. Cohen left the building at around 1:30 p.m. Friday, declining to say why he was there."

* I have so many questions about Trump's legal team: "A top lawyer for President Trump this year sought to help pay legal fees for Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, initially trying to divert money from the White House legal defense fund and later soliciting donors and pledging $25,000 of his own."

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Image: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Speaks At Bar Association's White Collar Crime Institute

Deputy AG Rosenstein reportedly explored 25th Amendment remedy for Trump

09/21/18 02:33PM

In early May 2017, Donald Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, a decision that was motivated, according to the president, by his concerns about the investigation into the Russia scandal. In an NBC News interview soon after, Trump described Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as "highly respected," a "very good guy," and a "very smart guy."

Evidently, the feeling was not mutual. The New York Times  reports today on what Rosenstein was apparently up to around this time.

The deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, suggested last year that he secretly record President Trump in the White House to expose the chaos consuming the administration, and he discussed recruiting cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office for being unfit.

Mr. Rosenstein made these suggestions in the spring of 2017 when Mr. Trump's firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director plunged the White House into turmoil. Over the ensuing days, the president divulged classified intelligence to Russians in the Oval Office, and revelations emerged that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey to pledge loyalty and end an investigation into a senior aide.

To put it mildly, this is a rather extraordinary report, documenting behind-the-scenes discussions Rosenstein reportedly had with federal law enforcement officials. The Times' reporting, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, appears to be based in part on contemporaneous memos prepared by Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director at the time, whom Trump later helped oust from his post. [Update: NBC News now has a competing account, which includes Rosenstein "joking when he discussed wearing a wire."]

Rosenstein issued a statement denying the accuracy of the article, which he described as being based on "anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the department and are advancing their own personal agenda." He added that based on his dealings with the president, "there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment."

According to the Times' report, however, that may not reflect how Rosenstein felt last year -- when he reportedly discussed the possibility of a 25th Amendment remedy, telling McCabe he thought Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly might be persuadable on the subject.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

Trump reverses course on declassifying Russia investigation materials

09/21/18 12:43PM

Donald Trump is not immune to political pressure, and he has been known to change direction on occasion. The president recently reversed course on his family-separation policy, for example, facing an untenable political backlash. We've also seen Trump reverse course on labeling China a currency manipulator, and when advising Congress on assorted legislative strategies.

Today's reversal, however, was a little harder to predict. The Washington Post  reported:

President Trump on Friday walked back his order earlier this week to declassify information in the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying Justice Department officials and others had persuaded him not to do so for the time being.

The retreat from his declassification decree issued just four days ago underscores the ongoing tensions between the White House and the Justice Department over the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is examining whether any Trump associates may have conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the election.

"I met with the [Department of Justice] concerning the declassification of various UNREDACTED documents," Trump wrote on Twitter. "They agreed to release them but stated that so doing may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe. Also, key Allies' called to ask not to release. Therefore, the Inspector General has been asked to review these documents on an expedited basis. I believe he will move quickly on this (and hopefully other things which he is looking at). In the end I can always declassify if it proves necessary. Speed is very important to me - and everyone!"

The Post's report added that the change in direction follows "a series of conversations" between Emmet Flood, a member of the White House legal team, and senior law enforcement and intelligence officials. Concerned outreach from British officials also reportedly had an effect.

What makes all of this surprising, however, is the fact that Trump spent the last several days taking the opposite position, including in an interview just last night.

It's a bizarre timeline of events:

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.21.18

09/21/18 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* In Texas' closely watched U.S. Senate race, there's been a flurry of recent polling, including this new Public Policy Polling survey, which shows Sen. Ted Cruz (R) leading Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) by only three points, 48% to 45%.

* On a related note, the Cook Political Report, one of only a handful of non-partisan reports that studies campaigns at a granular level, changed its rating for the Texas race, moving it from "lean Republican" to "toss-up."

* Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I), in the midst of a tough re-election fight this year, announced his opposition to Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination yesterday. The move is likely intended to increase the pressure on Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is generally seen as undecided on the nominee.

* In New Jersey's 7th congressional district, widely seen as a possible pick-up opportunity for Democrats, a new Monmouth University poll finds Tom Malinowski (D) leading incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance (R), 47% to 39%.

* In California's 50th congressional district, Ammar Campa-Najjar (D) has unveiled a tough new ad targeting Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) in the wake of the congressman's criminal indictment. In an interesting twist, the ad relies exclusively on news coverage of Hunter's scandal that aired on Fox News.

* Speaking of California, there's new interest in a cyber-attack that targeted Bryan Caforio's (D) campaign website in California's 25th congressional district. Caforio finished a competitive third in the June primary.

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Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration

A problem emerges with the Republicans' anti-Pelosi strategy

09/21/18 11:23AM

As the 2018 midterms approach, the Republican Party has a bit of a messaging problem. GOP officials and candidates can't talk about their tax breaks for the wealthy, because the public hates them. They can't talk about their health care efforts, because voters hate them even more.

They can't talk too much about Donald Trump, because he's unpopular and is helping drive up Democratic turnout. They can't talk about their plans to cut Medicare and Social Security, because the backlash would be severe. They can't even talk about their record of success over the last two years, because Republicans, despite controlling each of the levers of federal power, just haven't accomplished much.

And that leaves the party with just a couple of remaining pillars: Republicans are running against immigration and they're running against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). But as Bloomberg News reports today, even this approach is burdened by a significant flaw.

President Trump likes to mock Nancy Pelosi, but a private survey conducted for the Republican National Committee finds that she's actually more popular -- and beats the president when the midterm election is framed as a contest between the two.

The internal poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, asks registered voters who they support "when the November election is framed by Trump and Pelosi." Overall, respondents prefer Pelosi-aligned candidates over Trump-aligned candidates by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent. Among independents only, Pelosi still prevails by a 4-point margin. The poll was completed on Sept. 2.

This comes on the heels of a Fox News poll that found Pelosi with roughly the same national approval rating as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and more support than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

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Apparently unable to help himself, Trump takes aim at Kavanaugh's accuser

09/21/18 10:56AM

In an interview with The Hill this week, Donald Trump was critical of the sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, arguing that the claim is "no different than the Russian witch hunt." Of course, by the standards of this president, the rebuke was fairly mild.

Indeed, CNN reported yesterday that White House officials have been "quietly stunned" by Trump's muted reaction. They feared the worst, and were pleasantly surprised when the president said Christine Blasey Ford deserved to be heard.

Axios had a related item this morning, quoting a source close to Trump saying the public has "no idea" how difficult it's been to keep Trump from attacking Ford. A White House official added, "Hopefully he can keep it together until Monday."

Indeed, at a campaign rally in Las Vegas last night, Trump offered effusive praise for his Supreme Court nominee, but told supporters, "I'm not saying anything about anybody else."

This morning, however, the Republican who has long struggled with impulse control apparently couldn't contain himself any longer, publishing a trio of tweets on the subject.

"Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man, with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians who don't want to know the answers, they just want to destroy and delay. Facts don't matter. I go through this with them every single day in D.C.

"I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!

"The radical left lawyers want the FBI to get involved NOW. Why didn't someone call the FBI 36 years ago?"

Evidently, he just wasn't capable of "keeping it together until Monday."

That said, if Trump has spent the week thinking of how best to go after the California professor, it's striking he couldn't think of something smarter to say.

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Image: Donald Trump

Assault allegation weakens public support for Kavanaugh's nomination

09/21/18 10:00AM

Brett Kavanaugh was already an unusually unpopular Supreme Court nominee. As Rachel noted on the show last night, this week's developments have made Donald Trump's choice for the high court even more controversial.

More American voters now oppose Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination than support it after he was accused of committing sexual assault while he was in high school, with opposition increasing 9 points since last month, according to a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Kavanaugh has categorically denied the accusation, which delayed his scheduled confirmation vote before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and which has roiled American politics less than seven weeks before the 2018 midterm elections.

In the poll -- which was conducted Sunday (when the accusation from Christine Blasey Ford was first made public) through Wednesday -- 38 percent of voters say they oppose Kavanaugh's nomination to serve on the nation's highest court, including 27 percent who "strongly" oppose him.

It's the first time any NBC News poll has found a Supreme Court nominee "underwater" -- opponents of confirmation outnumber supporters.

This calls for a chart:

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Trump admits our allies are concerned about his declassification gambit

09/21/18 09:20AM

It's been several days since Donald Trump announced plans to declassify sensitive materials from the investigation into the Russia scandal. The president admits he hasn't read the documents, but he's nevertheless convinced they'll help the White House's policy agenda -- which is evidently more important than the guidance from national security officials who urged Trump not to do this.

But as it turns out, when it comes to those who've given the president good advice, the list extends beyond officials who try to keep Americans safe. In fact, Trump unexpectedly made a little news last night.

President Donald Trump says several close allies of the United States have called to raise concerns about his decision to declassified a trove of documents related to the early days of the FBI's Russia investigation,

Asked for a status update during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity in Las Vegas, Trump said: "Well, we're moving along."

But he said his administration was "also dealing with foreign countries that do have a problem" and received calls Thursday from two "very good allies." He said: "We do have to respect their wishes. But it'll come out."

According to a transcript of the interview, Sean Hannity asked "how soon" the declassified materials will reach the public. It was in this context that Trump said, "We are also dealing with foreign countries that do have a problem. I must tell you. I got called today from two very good allies saying, 'Please, can we talk. It is not as simple as all of that.' And we do have to respect their wishes. But it will all come out."

I've written many times about the instances in which Trump has described conversations that only happened in his imagination, but in each of those cases, the president was trying to make himself look better by describing chats that never occurred.

His assertions last night were far easier to believe -- because they make Trump look worse.

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