* Syria: "The U.S. blamed the Syrian government Thursday for a direct airstrike on an Aleppo hospital that killed more than a dozen doctors and patients. Two of the eight doctors working at the Al Quds hospital, which is located in rebel-held Aleppo and specializes in treating children, were killed in Wednesday's air attack, the Doctors Without Borders medical charity reported."
* Afghanistan: "A senior U.S. official says that about 16 U.S. military personnel, including one general officer, have been disciplined for mistakes that led to the bombing of a civilian hospital in Afghanistan last year that killed 42 people."
* A surprise in Iraq: "Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq Thursday for a visit intended to help resolve a political crisis that's hindering efforts to defeat the Islamic State group. Biden flew overnight from Washington to the Iraqi capital."
* San Bernardino: "Federal officials say warrants were issued on Thursday in relation to the deadly San Bernardino mass shooting and that the new charges are not terrorism related. According to the U.S. Attorney's California office, three people with family connections to Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the shooters in the deadly terrorist attack at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center in December were arrested this morning on federal conspiracy, marriage fraud and false statement charges."
* Smart move: "The Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged after meeting in Washington on Wednesday afternoon, and officials offered little new guidance for when they might be ready to raise it again."
* Another smart move: "Most inmates in halfway houses after release from prison will be eligible for Medicaid benefits under a new federal policy announced Thursday. The change, part of a larger push by the Obama administration to help former inmates or reduce sentences, means nearly 100,000 people in halfway houses in states where they would be eligible for Medicaid should soon have access to health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment."
As recently as 14 months ago, there wasn't a state in the nation with automatic voter registration. As of this afternoon, there are now four states that have taken the leap.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has signed into law a bill that automatically registers eligible residents to vote when they apply for a driver's license. [...]
The Democratic governor signed the measure Thursday. It streamlines voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles with a system that identifies eligible Vermont residents and automatically sends their information to the town or city clerk for addition to the checklist, unless they opt out.
In his official press statement, Vermont's Democratic governor celebrated the reversal of the broader national trend restricting voting rights. "While states across the country are making it harder for voters to get to the polls, Vermont is making it easier by moving forward with commonsense polices that remove unnecessary barriers and increase participation in our democracy," Shumlin said.
While Vermont isn't the first state to adopt the policy, the Green Mountain State did it with notable enthusiasm. In the Democratic-led legislature, automatic voter registration passed the state House 125 to 1, while in the state Senate, the vote was 28 to 0.
Vermont's law will take effect next year, on July 1, 2017.
Despite all of the recent progress in the U.S. job market, the nation's overall economic growth continues to lag. The Commerce Department announced this morning that GDP growth in the first quarter -- covering January through March -- was just 0.5%. The New York Timesreported:
Whatever the answer, it's clear that businesses have grown much more wary of new investments recently, and the clearest evidence of that has emerged in the last two quarters.
Much of the recent downturn in business spending is a result of much lower prices for oil, metals and other commodities, and fears of a slowdown in China and elsewhere around the world that are putting a crimp on investment opportunities.
"It doesn't look like there's any danger of recession, but the global economy and commodities are weak," Kevin Logan, chief United States economist at HSBC, told the Times. "The global commodity shock has affected growth in the U.S. in a way that was unexpected, especially in terms of the energy industry."
It's worth noting that this morning's total is a preliminary estimate that will be revised twice more in the coming months. Whether it's revised up or down remains to be seen.
Marketwatch reported that most economists believe today's discouraging data "is unlikely to carry over in the spring." New York magazine added, "While it's possible that these are the first signs of a looming recession that will propel Donald Trump to the Oval Office and America to its untimely death, there are several reasons to be bullish about the economy's near-term prospects."
Following this week's primaries, the 2016 presidential general election is, after more than a year of campaigning, coming into focus. It's not yet a done deal in either party, but odds are, Donald Trump will face Hillary Clinton in the fall. What's less clear is what Trump intends to do about it.
In recent months, the Republican frontrunner has prioritized insulting labels for his rivals, hoping to define them quickly in voters' eyes. Jeb Bush was "low energy"; Ted Cruz is "Lying Ted"; Marco Rubio became "Little Marco"; and so on. Trump's message about the Democratic frontrunner is still taking shape, but he's clearly begun trying out some lines of attack.
"If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote," Trump declared Tuesday night. The "only card she has is the woman's card," the Republican frontrunner added. On NBC this morning, Trump stuck to the line.
A day after his chief rival picked a woman as a running mate, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump defended comments he made about Hillary Clinton playing "the woman card" saying the Democrat couldn't even win a local election if she were a man.
"The primary thing that she has going is that she's a woman and she's playing that card like I have never seen anybody play it before," he said Thursday on TODAY.
Co-host Savannah Guthrie noted, "But Mr. Trump, for you to say, 'If she were not a woman, she would be getting 5 percent' suggests the only thing she has going for her is that she's a woman -- not that she was a former senator, a former Secretary of State and a lawyer. Do you understand why people find that to be a kind of demeaning comment?"
Trump was unfazed. "No, I find it to be a true comment," he replied. "I think the only thing she's got going is the fact that she's a woman."
Trump added, "Nobody respects women more than I do. And I wasn't playing the woman's card; it's true she is playing the woman's card. Everything she says is about the woman's card."
If there's a smart political strategy lurking somewhere in all of this nonsense, it's hiding well.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* Despite talk from some of his supporters about rejecting the Democratic ticket in the fall, Bernie Sanders told MSNBC yesterday, "I will do everything that I can, and I think Hillary Clinton and I agree on this, that we will do everything we can to make sure that a Republican does not win the White House. I will knock my brains out, I will work seven days a week to make sure that that does not happen if I am the nominee and if I am not the nominee. That's what I will do."
* Donald Trump's success in Pennsylvania is even more impressive than it initially appeared: "NBC News reached out to all 54 delegate winners after the polls closed Tuesday night. Interviews reveal that as of Wednesday afternoon 35 said they intend to support Trump on the first ballot at the convention -- a number that could rise north of 40 when the final 10 delegates are reached."
* For the record, I don't care that Trump used a teleprompter yesterday. I do care that he used a teleprompter after saying a few months ago, "When you're really, really, really smart like me ... I don't need teleprompters."
* Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a former Marco Rubio supporter, officially threw his backing to Ted Cruz yesterday. Believe it or not, for all the Capitol Hill anxiety surrounding Trump, Gardner is only the fourth of 54 Senate Republicans to back Cruz, and only the second since mid-March.
* Despite the agreement that was supposed to help give Ted Cruz a "clear path" in Indiana, John Kasich continues to campaign in the Hoosier State.
* Rep. Marlin Stutzman's Republican Senate campaign in Indiana appears to be moving in the wrong direction: he reportedly "failed to report $1,100 in expenses to federal campaign officials, including a private plane trip last month from a friend with a real estate development business."
Everything about Ted Cruz creating a "ticket" with Carly Fiorina is a mistake. While a vice-presidential vetting process usually requires months of scrutiny, Cruz tapped Fiorina after about a week and a half, suggesting very little care even went into the decision.
It was an odd decision, made in haste, that does little for Cruz, all while reflecting a lack of seriousness of purpose. The Texas senator did, however, manage to tell the public something important about himself.
I've seen some suggestions that the political world's general fascination with the "Veepstakes" process is misplaced, since so few voters consider running mates when deciding how to vote. But I'm inclined to defend the preoccupation: presidential hopefuls face a series of important tests ahead of an election, and none is more important than their VP selection.
This one decision speaks volumes about a candidate's judgment and priorities in ways no other campaign development can match.
For Cruz, it made yesterday something of a disaster. Fiorina is not only unqualified for national office, but the way in which Cruz made the announcement -- as part of a rushed, desperation ploy, intended as a gimmick to boost a struggling campaign -- points to a candidate who isn't taking the race as seriously as he's supposed to. We're finally learning something useful about Cruz's judgment under fire, and it's not at all encouraging.
If the Texas senator thinks he can ride a wave of cynicism to the nomination, after coming up far short in the primaries and caucuses, he's likely to be disappointed.
All of which serves as a news peg for a thesis longtime readers may recognize. Running mates tend to fall into one of three categories: August, November, and January.
After seven years of waiting for a Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at least claims to be moving closer to a resolution. The GOP leader appeared on MSNBC yesterday and said his party's plan might even be ready in time for the Republican National Convention, which begins in July.
There's ample reason for skepticism, but who knows, maybe Ryan will manage to pull something together. But while we wait, it's worth appreciating the fact that even if an "Obamacare" alternative emerges -- it's unlikely, let's imagine it for the sake of conversation -- Americans probably aren't going to care for it. Consider this new Reuters report:
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan called on Wednesday for an end to Obamacare's financial protections for people with serious medical conditions, saying these consumers should be placed in state high-risk pools.
In election-year remarks that could shed light on an expected Republican healthcare alternative, Ryan said existing federal policy that prevents insurers from charging sick people higher rates for health coverage has raised costs for healthy consumers while undermining choice and competition.
"Less than 10 percent of people under 65 are what we call people with pre-existing conditions, who are really kind of uninsurable," Ryan told a Georgetown University audience yesterday. "Let's fund risk pools at the state level to subsidize their coverage, so that they can get affordable coverage. You dramatically lower the price for everybody else."
Ryan doesn't talk about health policy details often, so these comments were a welcome contribution. They were also an important hint of what's to come.
Former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) occasionally dropped his guard during his tenure, and offered some candid, often pointed, barbs towards his Republican colleagues. But now that he's no longer in office, the former GOP leader has even less of an incentive to be guarded.
The Stanford Daily, the university's student paper, reported today on Boehner's on-campus appearance last night, during which the former Speaker shared some thoughts on the 2016 presidential race.
Much of the discussion -- and laughs -- focused on Boehner's views on the current presidential candidates. Segueing into the topic, Kennedy asked Boehner to be frank given that the event was not being broadcasted, and the former Speaker responded in kind. When specifically asked his opinions on Ted Cruz, Boehner made a face, drawing laughter from the crowd.
"Lucifer in the flesh," the former speaker said. "I have Democrat friends and Republican friends. I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life."
All right, but why don't you tell us how you really feel, Mr. Speaker.
I should note that the Boehner quote hasn't been independently verified and there doesn't appear to be a video of his Stanford appearance. But it's also incredibly easy to believe that the reporting is accurate given the former Speaker's longtime hatred of Ted Cruz, even before the senator launched a presidential campaign.
Note the pride in which Boehner described Cruz as a "jackass" last year.
As for why, exactly, the former Speaker hates the Texan quite so much, there's no great mystery here: Cruz has never had much influence with the Senate Republicans he ostensibly works with every day, but he's enjoyed considerable influence over House Republicans, who he repeatedly urged to ignore their own Speaker during Boehner's tenure.
During his brief tenure in Congress, Sen. Tom Cotton's (R-Ark.) most notable contribution has been an ignominious one. During the international nuclear negotiations with Iran, the right-wing Arkansan wrote a letter to Iranian officials, telling them not to trust the United States. It wasn't subtle: Cotton and his Republican allies tried to sabotage their own country's foreign policy during delicate diplomatic negotiations.
Cotton's gambit, we now know, failed, but yesterday we were reminded that the policy remains very much on the senator's mind. The New York Timesreported:
The first appropriations bill taken up this year by the Senate -- in what was supposed to a be a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation on financing the government -- crashed and burned on Wednesday because of a dispute over an amendment that Democrats and White House officials said would undermine President Obama's nuclear accord with Iran.
The amendment, offered by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, would bar the United States from purchasing heavy water -- which is used in producing nuclear energy and nuclear weapons -- from Iran. Under Mr. Obama's nuclear accord, Iran must reduce its supplies of heavy water.
The spending bill was supposed to pass with relative ease, but Cotton decided he wanted to add his amendment first. The problem, of course, is if the bill includes a measure preventing the United States from purchasing heavy water from Iran, the White House will veto it.
And why does the United States want to buy heavy water created through Iran's nuclear program? Because the alternative is allowing the water to go onto the open market, which the administration sees as a potential security threat.
But even more interesting still was the nature of the argument that followed between the White House and Cotton.
After Donald Trump's big speech yesterday on foreign policy, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Twitter, "Washington elites mock Trump for mispronouncing Tanzania. They don't get it. He said the most important word correctly: America. He gets it."
I suppose this is true in a literal sense. It is "important" for an American presidential candidate to pronounce the name of their own country correctly, and if this is the new standard for success, I'm pleased to report that Gingrich is correct: Trump cleared this absurdly low bar.
But aside from pronouncing "America" correctly, the rest of Trump's remarks were an unnerving mess. MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin reported:
Looking to soothe fears that he lacked the experience and gravitas necessary to manage the most powerful military in the world, Donald Trump delivered a rare pre-written speech Wednesday in Washington outlining his foreign policy vision.
In many ways it raised more questions than it answered, bouncing between typical anti-Obama talking points, jarring threats to America's friends and rivals, and soothing talk of peaceful global cooperation.
"Jarring" is the ideal adjective in this case. At one point, Trump said the United States must be prepared to tell our old allies that they should "defend themselves" and not look to us for support. In the next breath, Trump expressed dismay that so many U.S. allies feel abandoned by President Obama.
How did the Republican frontrunner reconcile the contradiction? He didn't -- Trump simply transitioned to new contradictions before anyone could fully come to terms with the last one.
Americans were told, for example, that a Trump administration would replace "randomness with purpose" through "a disciplined, deliberate and consistent foreign policy." He then insisted, "We must as, a nation, be more unpredictable."
Trump opposes the idea of a foreign policy based on "ideology," rejecting the idea of exporting Western-style democracy abroad. He then emphasized the importance of "promoting Western civilization" around the globe.
Trump lamented the way in which our "resources are overextended." He also believes the United States must "continually play the role of peacemaker" and "help to save lives and, indeed, humanity itself."
Trump boasted about all of the leverage we have over China, around the same time as he complained about how we no longer have leverage over China.
So, what does Donald Trump believe about foreign policy? He believes in nothing and everything, all at once. As president, he would do more and less, wage war and peace, reach out and push away, all while being unflinchingly consistent and wildly unpredictable.
After this week's primary results, the unyielding arithmetic left Bernie Sanders and his team with few options. They could launch some kind of scorched-earth campaign, or they could grudgingly concede that they're likely to finish a competitive second in the race for the Democratic nomination.
A day after Bernie Sanders won only one of five northeastern primary contests against rival Hillary Clinton, his campaign will lay off more than two hundred staffers in the effort to concentrate its remaining resources on upcoming contests, particularly the June 7 California primary.
Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs told NBC News that the layoffs are part of a "right-sizing" in light of the dwindling number of remaining primary contests. "It's a posture of reality," Briggs said.
A total of 225 staffers were apparently let go yesterday during a brief conference call led by Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver. Joy Reid noted on the show last night that many of these paid aides were disappointed, not just by the loss of their job and the wind down in a campaign they believe in, but also because of the surprise: these staffers assumed they'd remain on the team through June, and they'd hoped to hear the bad news from Sanders himself.
Regardless, the senator told the New York Times that he would "refocus his efforts chiefly on the June 7 primary in California," even while competing in the other remaining states.
"If we can win the largest state in this country, that will send a real message to the American people," Sanders said, "and to the delegates that this is a campaign that is moving in the direction it should."
It's worth pausing to appreciate what, specifically, he means when he talks about "sending a message."
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz tries to shake up the race by announcing Carly Fiorina as his pick for vice president. Rachel Maddow points out it’s a trick that’s been tried before, unsuccessfully. watch
Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss speaks to Rachel Maddow about the historical significance of “America First” which was invoked by Charles Lindbergh in 1941 to urge the U.S. to stay out of World War II and refrain from helping allies defeat Adolf Hitler. watch
MSNBC National Correspondent Joy Reid tells Rachel Maddow the Sanders campaign cut staffers to marshal resources for big, upcoming contests in California and New Jersey. The Sanders campaign, she says, is in it for the long haul and could use their influence to make structural changes to the party. watch