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Ben Carson watches as Donald Trump takes the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Ben Carson takes risks with Alabama Senate race endorsement

09/25/17 02:05PM

On Friday night, Donald Trump traveled to Alabama in the hopes of giving appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) an 11th-hour boost ahead of tomorrow's primary runoff. Shortly before the president spoke, however, one of the president's high-profile cabinet secretaries announced his support for Strange's rival. The Washington Post reported:

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson issued a statement Friday supporting Roy Moore's candidacy for the Republican Senate nomination in Alabama, breaking with President Trump's endorsement of the establishment-backed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange.

Though Carson did not explicitly use the word "endorse" in his written statement, he didn't leave any doubts about whom he wants Alabama voters to support. "Judge Moore is a fine man of proven character and integrity, who I have come to respect over the years," Carson said. "He is truly someone who reflects the Judeo-Christian values that were so important to the establishment of our country.

"It is these values that we must return to make America great again. I wish him well and hope everyone will make sure they vote on Tuesday."

For now, let's put aside the bizarre belief that Roy Moore's theocratic vision and multiple ethical violations that forced him from the bench will "make America great." Instead, let's focus on the angles that make this story so problematic for Carson.

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Image: Bill Cassidy,Lindsey Graham

Republicans set the stage for a striking health care showdown

09/25/17 12:48PM

If you were one of the many Americans who was involved in the recent effort to derail the Republicans' latest heath care repeal plan, I have some good news and bad news. The good news is, you succeeded: the Graham-Cassidy plan unveiled two weeks ago is dead, unable to secure enough GOP support.

The bad news is, there's a new Graham-Cassidy plan.

As NBC News reported, the new proposal, out this morning, includes "a series of carve-outs for Alaska." The point isn't subtle: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has been deeply skeptical of her party's repeal campaign, and Republican leaders are effectively trying to pay her off.

To her credit, the GOP senator has been resistant to these efforts in the past, making clear she's concerned about the national system overall, not just her home state. And if that's still the case, this latest attempt at a Polar Payoff should fall short, since as the Huffington Post's Jonathan Cohn explained, this latest repeal bill is in some ways worse than its predecessor.

Based on initial inspection, the new bill is a lot like the original bill, which would have decimated existing federal health programs, reduced government spending, and left many millions without insurance.

But now the legislation, which Politico and Vox first reported, includes a pair of important changes -- an even more aggressive assault on protections for people with pre-existing conditions, as well as some extra money to blunt the impact of funding cuts for a handful of states.

That handful of states includes Alaska and Maine -- home to two Senate GOP skeptics of their party's health care crusade.

That said, even with the carve outs, NBC News obtained an industry analysis that concluded Alaska "would still lose money" under the latest Republican plan because it would end Medicaid expansion, which has benefited much of the country, including Alaska.

So, where does that leave us? Here's where things stand as of this afternoon:

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.25.17

09/25/17 12:00PM

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

* Ahead of tomorrow's Republican primary runoff in Alabama, appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) is trying to distance himself from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose political operation has gone to great lengths to help Strange win.

* On a related note, in case the Alabama race couldn't get any weirder, Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK's Independence Party, will reportedly join Steve Bannon and reality-show star Phil Robertson at a rally tonight in support of Roy Moore.

* Donald Trump, meanwhile, called into an Alabama radio show this morning to emphasize his support for Strange, and twice referred to Roy Moore as "Ray." Reminded of the candidate's actual name, Trump replied that his confusion is "not a good sign" for Moore.

* With seven weeks remaining in Virginia's gubernatorial race, a new pol from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University shows Ralph Northam (D) with a modest lead over Ed Gillespie (R), 47% to 41%.

* A group called America First Policies, which has close ties to Trump's operation, is reportedly launching an ad campaign encouraging the public to "turn off the NFL" because of players' civil rights protests.

* Former Vice President Joe Biden continues to maintain a busy political schedule, appearing over the weekend at an NAACP event in South Carolina. Biden also recently weighed in on a state Senate special election in Miami.

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Pedro Rojas holds a sign directing people to an insurance company where they can sign up for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, before the February 15th deadline on Feb. 5, 2015 in Miami, Fla.  (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Trump administration abandons subtlety in ACA sabotage campaign

09/25/17 11:30AM

To the great annoyance of its detractors, the Affordable Care Act is doing pretty well, but that doesn't mean the system is immune to sabotage. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend:

The Trump administration plans to shut down healthcare.gov, a website consumers use to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, for 12 hours on nearly every Sunday of the coming ACA enrollment season.

The outages, which the administration says are for maintenance, will occur from midnight through noon on every Sunday other than Dec. 10.

Just so we're clear, the Republican administration has already shrunk the open-enrollment period, cutting it in half. On top of that, consumers will now have even less access to the federal exchange marketplace on Sundays, with Trump's HHS shutting down the website for 12-hour increments.

Frank Baitman, a former chief information officer for HHS, made the case on Friday that there's no credible technological reason for this kind of decision. He added that the move reflects a "lack of will and respect" for the American people.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was even more direct on this point, arguing, "This is not normal maintenance. This is sabotage. Cold blooded. Clear. Out in the open."

Of course, if this were an isolated incident, it might be easier to give Team Trump the benefit of the doubt, but therein lies the point: this administration has abandoned all subtlety in its ACA sabotage campaign.

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Image: Donald Trump

Trump previews the kind of support GOP candidates can expect

09/25/17 11:00AM

After last year's campaign, Donald Trump took the highly unusual step of launching a tour, hosting a series of rallies in celebration of himself. After taking office, the practice didn't stop: the president still periodically visits red states to bask in supporters' praise at campaign-style rallies.

Friday night, however, offered something new and different: Trump headlined a big public rally, not for himself, but for appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) of Alabama, whose primary runoff is tomorrow. The event offered the first real look at the president playing a role he's unaccustomed to: that of a campaign cheerleader for a Republican ally worried about an election.

For GOP officials, this should matter a great deal. After all, Trump has spent months telling congressional Republicans not only to support his priorities, but also that his loyal allies can count on him to help with their campaigns.

So, how'd that work out for Luther Strange? Consider this excerpt from the transcript, when the president explained his thinking on the Alabama race:

"I might have made a mistake [in backing Strange] and I'll be honest, I might have made a mistake. Because, you know, here's a story: if Luther doesn't win, they're not going to say we picked up 25 points in a very short period of time. They're going to say, 'Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump. This is total embarrassment.' I mean, these are bad people.

"And by the way, both good men, both good men. And you know what? And I told Luther, I have to say this, if his opponent wins, I'm going to be here campaigning like hell for him."

Oh. So the president has endorsed Strange, but he's not sure if that was the right move; Trump is principally concerned about his own image; and if Strange loses the primary runoff, the president will enthusiastically back his rival in the general election.

Strange, of course, was on hand for all of this -- wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat.

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-ELECTIONS-TRUMP

The wrong president to claim the high ground on patriotism

09/25/17 10:30AM

As part of a lengthy series of online missives about sports and politics over the weekend, Donald Trump positioned himself as some kind of arbiter of patriotism. This was the message last night, for example:

"Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!"

Three hours earlier, the president published a related message:

"Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag --- we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"

There were a variety of similar tweets pushing the same theme: Trump, we're supposed to believe, is truly patriotic, while some of those engaged in peaceful protests on civil rights are showing disrespect toward the United States.

For a politician who's demonstrated authoritarian instincts on a few too many occasions, Trump's nationalistic posturing is unsettling. But just as important is the fact that the president doesn't seem to appreciate just how poor a messenger he is for this particular message.

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Image: US-POLITICS-RUSSIA-PROBE-KUSHNER

Kushner acknowledges use of private email account in White House

09/25/17 10:00AM

About a week ago, ProPublica reported that members of Donald Trump's voting commission have been using private email accounts to conduct official business. The same piece quoted legal experts who agreed that the practice falls short of compliance with the law.

The reporting came just a month after state officials in Indiana turned over private emails Vice President Mike Pence sent during his gubernatorial tenure. It turns out that Pence conducted quite a bit of official business through his private AOL account.

And late yesterday, Politico reported that Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's right-hand man on practically every issue, also used a private email account in the White House -- a practice his lawyer confirmed soon after.

President Donald Trump's son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, used his personal email account while communicating with White House colleagues, Kushner's lawyer said Sunday.

In a statement, the lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said Kushner used the account in fewer than 100 emails during Trump's first eight months in office.

Kushner's attorney said there were "fewer than a hundred" emails in total, and though we don't yet have any way of knowing whether this is true, he added, "All non-personal emails were forwarded to his official address and all have been preserved in any event."

This also follows reporting from February which found White House officials using private chat programs to circumvent record-preservation laws.

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Image: Tom Price

Facing scandal over taxpayer-funded jet travel, Price scrambles

09/25/17 09:30AM

It's a story that looked awful at the outset, and managed to get progressively worse very quickly. Just six days ago, Politico first reported that HHS Secretary Tom Price has been chartering private jets, paid for by American taxpayers, for official business. We learned soon after that the far-right cabinet secretary, who used to be outraged by stories like these, has taken at least 24 of these flights, at a cost exceeding $300,000.

Pressed for an explanation, Price initially didn't want to talk about it. Then the excuse related to the recent hurricanes, which didn't make any sense. His press office later said the chartered jets were about "making sure he is connected with the real American people," which was hilarious, since almost all real Americans tend to fly commercial.

We were then told Price started taking private jets because he had a bad experience with a cancelled flight, which, as excuses go, wasn't exactly persuasive.

Late last week, the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general's office announced an investigation into Price's travel arrangements, and soon after, the cabinet secretary said he'll stop taking chartered flights -- at least for now.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told Fox News on Saturday that he'll stop his taxpayer-funded travel on private jets, pending a formal review by his department's inspector general.

"We've heard the criticism. We've heard the concerns. We take that very seriously and have taken it to heart," Price said.

That may sound like a good start, but as Politico's latest report noted, Price continued just last week to take additional chartered flights, costing tens of thousands of dollars, even after the controversy broke. The new total cost to taxpayers for Price's private flights is now over $400,000 -- and that only includes the flights we know about since May.

Asked about the controversy yesterday, Donald Trump said, "We’re looking into it."

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Image: TOPSHOT-UN-ASSEMBLY

Trump reportedly ignored White House aides ahead of U.N. speech

09/25/17 09:00AM

Donald Trump's first speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week was a unique opportunity. The American president has quickly become the target of international mockery and derision, and many observers around the world see the television-personality-turned-politician as a ridiculous buffoon, incapable of leadership, statesmanship, and diplomacy.

But if Trump's address was an opportunity to chart a new course, he blew it. The speech not only included juvenile taunts, as if this were another one of the president's self-indulgent red-state rallies, but it served as a reminder that Trump's foreign policy vision is increasingly incoherent.

As the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne put it, the president's speech "was supposed to be a serious formulation of the president's grand strategy in the world ... but every effort Trump made to build an intellectual structure to support it only underscored that his favored phrase was either a trivial applause line or an argument that, if followed logically, was inimical to the United States' interests and values."

The remarks were so plainly absurd that some White House aides apparently told the L.A. Times that Trump ignored their advice before delivering it.

Senior aides to President Trump repeatedly warned him not to deliver a personal attack on North Korea's leader at the United Nations this week, saying insulting the young despot in such a prominent venue could irreparably escalate tensions and shut off any chance for negotiations to defuse the nuclear crisis.

Trump's derisive description of Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man" on "a suicide mission" and his threat to "totally destroy" North Korea were not in a speech draft that several senior officials reviewed and vetted Monday, the day before Trump gave his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, two U.S. officials said.

Some of Trump's top aides, including national security advisor H.R. McMaster, had argued for months against making the attacks on North Korea's leader personal, warning it could backfire.

But Trump, the L.A. Times article added, "felt compelled to make a dramatic splash in the global forum."

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because we've seen this dynamic unfold before.

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Image: Kim Jong Un attends launching of ballistic missile Hwasong-12

Trump warns North Korea may not 'be around much longer'

09/25/17 08:30AM

When Donald Trump wasn't complaining about black athletes and Republican senators opposed to their party's far-right health care plan, the president was threatening war with North Korea. He said via Twitter yesterday:

"Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!"

It's the kind of presidential statement that deserves some clarity -- because it sounds as if Trump is prepared to destroy North Korea if he doesn't like the rhetoric from its leaders.

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum noted in response, "My guess is that Trump is trying to goad Kim Jong-un into doing something provocative enough to justify a U.S. attack.... Alternatively, of course, Trump tweeted this because he's a childish buffoon who has no self-control and engages in schoolyard taunts with anyone he doesn't like."

That those appear to be the two most plausible explanations is unsettling.

And yet, here we are. Trump's tweet suggesting North Koreans may not be "around much longer" comes on the heels of the American president publicly calling Kim Jong-un a "madman" who is "killing his people," and who'll be "tested like never before."

That was soon followed by the president delivering a speech in Alabama in which he sounded indifferent about a diplomatic solution. "Maybe something gets worked out and maybe it doesn't," Trump said. "Personally, I'm not sure that it will. Other people like to say, 'Oh, we want peace.' You know, they've been saying now for 25 years, 'Oh, we want peace, we want peace.' And then he goes and just keeps going, going, going. Well, maybe something gets worked out and maybe it doesn't."

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Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMP

How Donald Trump tries to 'improve race relations'

09/25/17 08:00AM

"I think the president believes it is his role to improve race relations." That was the line Marc Short, the White House's legislative affairs director, shared on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday.

How's that working out?

The latest racial firestorm began on Friday night, when Donald Trump delivered a rambling speech in Alabama in which the president reflected on, of all things, sports. He noted, for example, that "they" are "ruining" the NFL by trying to reduce brain injuries. "You know, today, if you hit too hard, right, they hit too hard, 15 yards, throw him out of the game," Trump complained.

And if that were all he'd said, that would've merely been odd. But the president went much further:

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired, he's fired.' [...] Because that's a total disrespect of our heritage, that's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for, OK? Everything that we stand for.

"And I know we have freedoms and we have freedom of choice and many, many different freedoms. But you know what? It's still totally disrespectful. And, you know, when the NFL ratings are down massively, massively. Now, the number one reason happens to be that they like watching what's happening on, you know, with yours truly."

After suggesting that some Americans are so interested in him that they're watching less football, Trump added that fans should "leave the stadium" if they see players take a knee during the national anthem. "I guarantee things will stop, things will stop," he said. "Just pick up and leave, pick up and leave."

Apparently pleased with himself, the president announced via Twitter the next morning that the NBA's Golden State Warriors are no longer welcome at the White House, because Stephen Curry "hesitated" in response to an invitation.

And then he really got worked up. Trump complained that athletes should not be "allowed" to show "disrespect" towards the flag or the country, adding those who feel differently should be "fired." There were a series of related missives, culminating in the president calling football games "boring" and questioning the patriotism of the league.

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