First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected story out of Illinois, where a notable evangelical college was faced with a fairly simple choice regarding health care, but where school officials nevertheless made an inexplicable decision.
Taking a firm stand against Obamacare's controversial contraception mandate, Wheaton College on Friday will stop providing any health insurance for students.
The decision, announced to students July 10, will halt health care coverage for about a quarter of the college's 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students, forcing them to shop for other plans just weeks before their coverage ends.
Now, it's easy to get the basics of this story wrong. This is not, for example, a controversy in which Wheaton College had to choose between offering health benefits and providing contraception, or perhaps being forced to offer coverage that includes access to birth control, which the religious institution didn't want to subsidize. Stories like these have come up, but that dynamic doesn't apply here.
Wheaton faced a very different kind of choice. Under the Affordable Care Act, the evangelical college could claim a religious exemption to the contraception policy, at which point a private insurer would create a separate policy to cover contraception, directly for the consumer. Wheaton wouldn't have to subsidize this separate plan at all.
The college said this accommodation isn't good enough -- even claiming a religious exemption, it said, is a burden. It's preferable, Wheaton administrators concluded, to simply impose a last-minute change that scraps student health plans altogether.
Paul Chelsen, Wheaton's vice president of student development, said the move to cut off students' health security "breaks my heart," but he's doing it anyway. The controversy, he said, is "bigger than student health insurance." Chelsen added, "I acknowledge that students have been hurt by this decision and I regret that."
Wheaton is currently litigating the issue in federal courts. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently denied the school's request for a preliminary injunction against the ACA policy while its case proceeds. Doing some simple, two-page paperwork to claim a religious exemption, the court concluded, "is hardly a burdensome requirement."
One student told the Chicago Tribune, "I fear the administration is putting petty politics above caring for students."
Frederick Williams plies his well-honed news-watching skills to the task of answering questions about the stories covered on this week's The Rachel Maddow Show, for a chance to win stuff from around the office that we don't need anymore. watch
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, talks with Rachel Maddow about presidential candidates addressing his organization today and the influence of urban and African-American voters and the Black Lives Matter movement on American politics. watch
* Syria: "Syrian rebels, recently trained by the U.S. military, came under heavy fire Friday in northern Syria and for the first time called in U.S. airstrikes to repel the enemy. U.S. military officials tell NBC News the Free Syrian forces were attacked Friday morning by about 50 al Nusra fighters. Under siege, the Syrian moderates issued a desperate plea to the U.S. military."
* West Bank firebombing: "A Palestinian toddler was burned to death and his 4-year-old brother and parents were critically injured early Friday morning in an arson attack on their home in the West Bank. Witnesses and officials attributed the attack to Jewish extremists because of Hebrew graffiti sprayed nearby. 'Revenge!' was written on one wall, next to a Star of David."
* Also in Israel: "Six people were stabbed at Jerusalem's annual Gay Pride Parade on Thursday. The suspected attacker was identified as Yishai Schlissel, the same man behind the attack on the 2005 parade, recently released from prison."
* Ebola: "Merck & Co.'s vaccine for Ebola is "highly effective," according to an interim analysis from a panel of experts who recommended that a late-stage trial should continue. The vaccine was 100 percent effective when it was tested on more than 4,000 people who were in close contact with Ebola patients in the African nation of Guinea, the World Health Organization said, citing a study published today in the Lancet medical journal."
* South Carolina: "A federal judge entered not guilty pleas Friday on charges against Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man accused of killing nine African-American parishioners at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month."
* Ohio: "A grand jury has decided to not indict additional Cincinnati police officers involved in the investigation into the death of an unarmed black man who was shot in the head during a routine traffic stop earlier this month, Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters announced Friday."
* ISIS: "After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded."
* DOJ: "Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday that the agency is starting a pilot program that will give a limited number of eligible incarcerated students the opportunity to receive federal funding for obtaining a bachelor's or professional degree."
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee caused quite a stir this week with repulsive Holocaust rhetoric, which the former Arkansas governor probably saw as a vehicle to a poll bump, despite rebukes from Israeli officials and domestic Jewish groups.
But as that controversy fades, the GOP candidate needs another ridiculous remark to keep his name in the headlines. This ought to do the trick.
GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is open to the idea of using federal troops and the FBI to stop women from having abortions.
"I will not pretend there is nothing we can do to stop this," Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and an outspoken social conservative, said Thursday at a campaign stop in Jefferson, Iowa.
According to the Huffington Post's piece, Huckabee proceeded to attend another event in Iowa, where he was asked whether he'd seriously consider using federal troops or FBI agents to prevent abortions.
"We'll see if I get to be president," the Republican said, adding, "All American citizens should be protected."
The Constitution guarantees the rights of citizenship to "all persons born" in the United States. Huckabee, however, seems to believe "citizens" also includes fetuses.
In case it's not obvious, the far-right Republican is describing a deliberate constitutional crisis.
It's been a week since the New York Times published its mistaken story on Hillary Clinton's emails, which has since been corrected multiple times, and has quickly entered the canon of How Not To Cover A Presidential Candidate. The questions for the newspaper, however, linger.
Overnight, the Clinton campaign published a lengthy, 1,900-word letter from Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri to the paper's executive editor, Dean Baquet, fleshing out the campaign's concerns about the Times' mistake, and questioning the paper's "profoundly unsettling" explanation for how the article was published in the first place.
For its part, the Times has repeatedly said over the last week that it got the story wrong because its reporters were given wrong information. I'm not unsympathetic to the defense -- this has admittedly happened to me, too -- but it does raise questions as to who, exactly, the Times relied on for the bogus information.
"In our conversations with the Times reporters, it was clear that they had not personally reviewed the IG's referral that they falsely described as both criminal and focused on Hillary Clinton. Instead, they relied on unnamed sources that characterized the referral as such. However, it is not at all clear that those sources had directly seen the referral, either. This should have represented too many "degrees of separation" for any newspaper to consider it reliable sourcing, least of all The New York Times.
"Times' editors have attempted to explain these errors by claiming the fault for the misreporting resided with a Justice Department official whom other news outlets cited as confirming the Times' report after the fact. This suggestion does not add up. It is our understanding that this Justice Department official was not the original source of the Times' tip....This raises the question of what other sources the Times may have relied on for its initial report."
This is more than just a little whodunit for Beltway insiders and the political media. The answer matters quite a bit.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* The details of Donald Trump's position on immigration are still a little murky, but he apparently wants to pursue mass deportations, followed by limited re-entry. "We got to move 'em out, we're going to move 'em back in if they're really good people," the leading Republican told CNN this week.
* In Kentucky, where the gubernatorial race is just three months away, the new Bluegrass Poll shows state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) with a very narrow lead over Matt Bevin (R), 45% to 42%.
* Ohio Gov. John Kasich's (R) presidential campaign still seems like a longshot, but at least financially, he's better off than many of his rivals. The governor's two PACs reported yesterday "raising a total of $11.7 million for his campaign" in the second quarter.
* Hillary Clinton hasn't said exactly how much she'd like to raise the federal minimum wage, but she spoke favorably yesterday of Sen. Patty Murray's (D-Wash.) proposal to raise the minimum from $7.25 to $12 an hour. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, wants an increase to $15.
* The wealthy Ricketts family, influential in Republican circles, is reportedly rallying behind Scott Walker's presidential campaign. This includes a $5 million check from billionaire investor Joe Ricketts to the governor's super PAC.
* The Trump campaign hired Michael Glassner, a former aide to Bob Dole and Sarah Palin, to serve as political director. Trump is also reportedly receiving guidance from Pat Caddell, a conservative Fox News Democrat.
As a Miami native, I've seen the pattern more than once. Democratic candidates, especially presidential hopefuls, would go to vote-rich South Florida, bash Castro, defend the U.S. embargo of Cuba, and hope to pick up at least some support from Cuban-American voters who've traditionally allied with Republicans.
Democrats who were skeptical of the old, ineffective U.S. policy towards Cuba might be willing to express concerns, but they'd do so quietly, far from the Sunshine State, and hope that Miami didn't notice.
With this in mind, it's genuinely amazing to see how much American politics has changed over a short period of time. Not only has President Obama restored full diplomatic relations with the island nation -- one of his more important foreign-policy accomplishments -- but msnbc reported that Hillary Clinton wants to end our economic embargo, too.
Hillary Clinton will call for lifting the trade embargo on Cuba Friday in a speech in the backyard of two pro-embargo Republican presidential candidates.
In a speech at Florida International University in Miami, Clinton will call on Congress to lift the 50-year-old embargo on the island nation, and attack Republican arguments in favor of the blockade failed policies of the past, her campaign said Wednesday.
The fact that this is happening in Miami makes the speech that much more extraordinary. It wasn't long ago that this scenario was simply unthinkable -- a competitive Democrat wouldn't deliver this speech anywhere, least of all South Florida. The very idea would be seen as electoral suicide.
But not anymore. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said this week that Clinton's position is an example of "political expediency."
I can't speak to Clinton's motives, but even Bush's criticism is unintentionally fascinating -- politically expedient positions, practically by definition, tend to be adopted because they're popular. In other words, the Republican presidential candidate is effectively arguing, "Clinton wants to lift the Cuba embargo because a lot of voters will agree with her."
Note to Team Jeb: that doesn't sound like criticism.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) traveled to Vienna last week and, after returning home, the right-wing freshman claimed he uncovered "secret side agreements to the Iran nuclear deal," struck by Iranian officials and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Cotton's allegations came up during the White House press briefing yesterday, and it appears the Obama administration isn't especially impressed with the senator's investigatory skills. The conservative Washington Timesreported:
White House spokesman Josh Earnest belittled Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas as an "international man of mystery" Thursday following the lawmaker's claim to have uncovered a secret side deal of the Iranian nuclear accord while on a mission to Europe -- information Mr. Earnest contended was readily available on the Internet.
"I hope that Senator Cotton had a pleasant trip to Vienna, but his travel was not necessary to learn the information he claims to have obtained," said Mr. Earnest, dubbing the freshman senator "Tom Cotton, international man of mystery" -- a reference to the 1997 Austin Powers movie about a goofy, hipster secret agent.
According to the transcript, Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, "The documents that Senator Cotton claims to have learned of during his trip to Vienna were actually documents that were previously discussed in material that we put forward some time earlier. So the fact is, Senator Cotton didn't really learn of anything in Vienna that wasn't already available to be learned, and this is information that was disclosed on the IAEA website."
I reached out to an administration official this morning to ask about the materials, and sure enough, the source directed me to this IAEA page, which fleshes out the agency's "road map" for future inspections of Iranian facilities.
The document was published online on July 14 -- more than two weeks ago -- which is the day the international nuclear agreement was first announced.
In other words, it doesn't seem especially "secret" and it's certainly not the kind of document a senator would have to travel to Vienna in order to "uncover."
After five years in office, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has not made many friends among those concerned with the environment, the climate crisis, or the state's natural resources.
"By most expert accounts, Gov. Rick Scott's tenure in Tallahassee has been a flat-out catastrophe for the Sunshine State's already-fragile environment," the Miami New Timesreported this week. "He slashed water management budgets and stacked regulatory boards with developers. He battled tooth-and-nail against new clean water mandates. Even muttering the words 'climate change' was banned in state offices."
With this in mind, the Tampa Bay Times' Craig Pittman found it curious when a Florida group announced that the far-right governor is receiving an award for his work on the environment.
The award, announced via email last week, is being given to Scott later this year by the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, which functions as a support group for the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is run by gubernatorial appointees.
In the announcement, the foundation's chairman, Miami real estate developer and lobbyist Rodney Barreto, hailed Scott for being "instrumental in helping develop a strong connection between fish and wildlife conservation and traditional outdoor activities like hunting and especially fishing."
The Sierra Club's Frank Jackalone told the Tampa Bay Times, "No one in their right mind would give Rick Scott an award for protecting wildlife."
Asked for an explanation, Brett Boston, the foundation's executive director, insisted the group is "very apolitical." And what about the governor's critics, who find it ridiculous that Scott would receive an environmental award?
"People complained about Mother Teresa," Boston said.
I'm going to assume that this is the first -- and quite likely the last -- time anyone has tried to draw a parallel between Rick Scott and Mother Teresa.
At its root, the recent and ongoing controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood is about fetal-tissue research. That's not necessarily good news for the group's Republican critics.
Sure, abortion is the underlying issue, but as Mother Jones' Kevin Drum explained this week, "If you think abortion is murder, then of course you object to the use of organs and tissue from aborted fetuses. If you don't, then you think it's fine. There's nothing new going on here. It's just a slightly different twist on the same fight between pro-lifers and pro-choicers that's been going on for decades."
I think that's right, though there's an additional complication: up until about a week ago, Republicans were on record supporting the very fetal-tissue research they're now outraged by. It's a detail House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reminded GOP leaders about yesterday.
"When [legislation] was passed enabling research to go forward, I remind that Mitch McConnell voted for that," she said at a news briefing Thursday in response to several questions about Planned Parenthood's undercover video controversy. [...]
Pelosi refers to legislation passed in 1993 that allowed federal funding to be used for medical research involving fetal tissue, under certain conditions.
The law prevents abortion providers from turning a profit, but it also permits providers to make tissues available for scientific research.
And for Republicans exploiting deceptively edited videos, this poses a real problem. For one thing, there's no evidence of Planned Parenthood ever profiting from fetal-tissue research. For another, there's also no evidence of the healthcare group making tissues available to anyone but medical researchers.
And finally, plenty of prominent GOP leaders actually voted for the bill that made this possible. The Huffington Post's Laura Bassett had a great report on this earlier in the week:
The parlor game for 2016 campaign observers is based on a straightforward question: "If Donald Trump's support is eventually going to fall, what will be the cause?"
The "if" poses its own challenge, but even if we accept the premise, it's not unreasonable to wonder what will cause Trump's lead in the polls to evaporate. Some Republicans assume this is a fleeting fad that cannot be sustained . Others believe the GOP's primary contest won't really begin in earnest until after the debates begin and TV ads start airing, making Trump's early surge irrelevant. Still others assume the former reality-show host will eventually say something so outrageous that he'll effectively commit political suicide.
But the point that brings comfort to many in the political establishment is the issue of electability -- Trump would face extremely long odds as a general-election candidate, and Republican primary voters, desperate for a win, will start thinking strategically in 2016.
Or will they? As Rachel noted on the show last night, the latest NBC News/Marist poll asked Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire for their 2016 preferences, but they also asked a question that was arguably more interesting:
"Which is more important to you: a Republican nominee for president who shares your position on most issues, or a Republican nominee for president who has the best chance of winning the White House?"
The results weren't even close. In New Hampshire, 67% of GOP voters want a candidate they agree with, while only 29% are principally concerned with electability. In Iowa, the results were practically identical.
This isn't about Trump, per se. This is about what we're learning about Republican voters themselves.