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Pastors from the Las Vegas area pray with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a visit to the International Church of Las Vegas, and International Christian Academy on Oct. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

This Week in God, 4.21.18

04/21/18 07:57AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at Donald Trump's relationship with politically conservative evangelical Christians, which actually appears to be strengthening, despite controversies that would seem to push in the opposite direction.

To be sure, as Trump rose to prominence in Republican politics, he and the religious right movement made an odd pairing. He is, after all, a secular, thrice-married casino owner with a lengthy history of "character" issues, while Christian conservatives generally have little use for these kinds of politicians.

But what's especially interesting about this awkward marriage is that Trump's support among evangelicals is going up, even as the public is confronted with new scandals about the president, adult-film entertainers, and hush-money payments. Vox noted yesterday:

White evangelical support of Donald Trump is at an all-time high, according to a new study. The poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in March, found that a full 75 percent of white evangelicals surveyed had a positive opinion of Donald Trump, compared to just 22 percent holding an unfavorable view. [...]

Given that 81 percent of white evangelical voters voted for Trump, these latest findings suggest that the well-document turmoil of Trump's presidency has done little to dissuade his core supporters. Nor are his supporters necessarily banking on the only Republican option out there: According to the poll, 69 percent of white evangelicals would prefer Trump, rather than another Republican candidate, as the 2020 presidential nominee,

That last number may be the most important. A variety of evangelical leaders have already made the case publicly that they're comfortable with a marriage of convenience with the president: so long as he keeps delivering on the religious right's priorities, the argument goes, the religious right will embrace moral relativism and look the other way on Trump's personal failings.

But if 69% of these voters prefer Trump to a different Republican -- which is to say, someone else who would presumably be just as eager to deliver on conservative Christians' political goals -- it suggests the movement is taking this relationship beyond convenience and actually investing in Trump personally. The polling results suggest they like him, not just what he's doing for them.

In January, as the Stormy Daniels controversy was first reaching the public, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said the religious right and the movement's adherents agreed that Trump should "get a mulligan" when it came to reports about his personal misdeeds. But "mulligan" suggests evangelicals may be less forgiving if, say, Trump were caught up in new scandals that cast his character in a negative light.

Given the available data, it's starting to look like Trump may have a limitless supply of "mulligans" when it comes to politically conservative evangelical Christians.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 4.20.18

04/20/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Keeping the pressure on: "Students from hundreds of schools across the country began a wave of walkouts Friday morning in a unified voice for tougher gun laws."

* Sometimes, the news takes an ironic turn: "One person was injured in a shooting at Forest High School in Ocala, Fla., Friday morning, a short time before a planned student walkout to protest school violence. The injured person, a 17-year-old male student, had a nonlife-threatening ankle injury, Sheriff Billy Woods said at a news conference."

* How is it EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt still has his job? "Pruitt has adopted a determined strategy to placate the president and lay low. On his frequent travels, including a Midwest trip Thursday, he has given up first class for coach when possible, according to aides. And he made a point of honoring a White House request for Cabinet officials to stop by a memorial to opioid victims installed on the Ellipse."

* In related news: "The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general on Thursday said he plans to examine Administrator Scott Pruitt's use of his round-the-clock security detail while on personal trips, including a family visit to Disneyland and attendance at sporting events, such as the Rose Bowl and a University of Kentucky basketball game."

* Diplomacy: "North and South Korea established for the first time a direct telephone line between their leaders, a move aimed at building trust and momentum one week before the two men are slated to meet at the inter-Korean demilitarized zone."

* It'll probably take a miracle to stop him now: "Mike Pompeo secured his first Democratic senator's endorsement on Thursday, putting his nomination as the next secretary of state on stronger footing. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) said she would vote to confirm the current Central Intelligence Agency director as the nation's top diplomat."

* All of the judges who ruled against the White House were Republican appointees: "President Donald Trump's effort to crack down on sanctuary cities suffered another legal setback Thursday as a federal appeals court in Chicago upheld a nationwide injunction against making federal grant funding contingent on cooperation with immigration enforcement."

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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Why the GOP's failure over the Comey memos seems so familiar

04/20/18 12:42PM

House Republicans fought for months to obtain memos then-FBI Director James Comey wrote about his interactions with Donald Trump. The Justice Department resisted for obvious reasons: the memos are evidence in an ongoing federal investigation, and law enforcement officials aren't in the habit of handing over such evidence to outside parties, especially not to satisfy a partisan political agenda.

But GOP lawmakers, desperate to help Trump, pressed on. After making all kinds of heated threats, Republicans eventually obtained the documents, promptly leaked them, and proceeded to pat themselves on the back.

House Republicans have declared that the James Comey memos they released Thursday disprove that President Trump obstructed justice in his interactions with the former FBI director. And Trump spiked the football, too....

But if anything, the memos only confirm Comey's version of events. And the new details only raise more questions about the infamous Steele dossier and Michael Flynn.... You have a president who can't stop talking about the dossier. And you have a White House that's suspicious about Flynn -- before he ultimately resigned. Those revelations don't help the president; they hurt him.

Or as NBC News' Chuck Todd put it this morning, "What exactly were House Republicans hoping to accomplish by demanding the full release of these memos? Nothing I've read seems to change Comey's story and if anything, these memos give more, not less, credence to the dossier."

Quite right. Republicans fought tooth and nail, ignoring every warning, to get their hands on these documents. They then shared them with the world, only to find that they haven't helped their president or their party in any meaningful way. In fact, the GOP architects of this misguided plan -- House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) -- appear worse off than they were before.

All of which leads to two points.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.20.18

04/20/18 12:00PM

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

* In a bit of a surprise, the Democratic National Committee this morning filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the Russian government, Donald Trump's campaign, and WikiLeaks, alleging their coordination to disrupt the 2016 campaign. This civil suit is on a separate legal track from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

* Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida who's enjoyed support from Donald Trump, was confronted with a new ethics complaint this week following reports that he rented a condo "from campaign donors who are executives at a defense contractor that lobbies the federal government."

* Illinois' gubernatorial race just got a little more complicated, with state Sen. Sam McCann (R) kicking off a third-party bid for Illinois' highest office. The Republican state lawmaker is apparently describing himself as an "independent conservative," who may further undermine Gov. Bruce Rauner's (R) chances for a second term.

* McClatchy reported this week that Trump-owned businesses "have received at least $15.1 million in revenue from political groups and federal agencies since 2015." The bulk of the revenue was spent by Trump's own campaign.

* With Blake Farenthold recently having resigned from Congress, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is apparently eager to hold a special election to fill the vacancy. Roll Call  reported, "Abbott sent a letter Thursday to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton outlining his desire to hold a special election soon and asking what laws he could bypass to speed up the process."

* In Pennsylvania, which will have a less-Republican-friendly congressional map this year following a state Supreme Court ruling, the latest Muhlenberg/Morning Call poll found Democrats leading Republicans on the generic ballot, 47% to 38%.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Trump used alter ego to exaggerate his financial wealth

04/20/18 11:20AM

It was a little embarrassing for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last fall when the public saw reports that he may have lied about his net worth. Apparently, over the course of several years, Ross wildly exaggerated his finances because he wanted to be seen as a billionaire on the Forbes 400 list.

Ross was ultimately removed from the list altogether when the publication determined that Ross had "lied" to the magazine, and the "fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers" went on for quite a while.

But as it turns out, he's not the only member of the Trump administration who was concerned about the Forbes 400 list -- because Ross' boss ran into some trouble of his own. Jonathan Greenberg wrote this gem for the Washington Post.

In May 1984, an official from the Trump Organization called to tell me how rich Donald J. Trump was. I was reporting for the Forbes 400, the magazine's annual ranking of America's richest people, for the third year. In the previous edition, we'd valued Trump's holdings at $200 million, only one-fifth of what he claimed to own in our interviews. This time, his aide urged me on the phone, I needed to understand just how loaded Trump really was.

The official was John Barron -- a name we now know as an alter ego of Trump himself. When I recently rediscovered and listened, for first time since that year, to the tapes I made of this and other phone calls, I was amazed that I didn't see through the ruse: Although Trump altered some cadences and affected a slightly stronger New York accent, it was clearly him. "Barron" told me that Trump had taken possession of the business he ran with his father, Fred. "Most of the assets have been consolidated to Mr. Trump," he said. "You have down Fred Trump [as half owner] ... but I think you can really use Donald Trump now." Trump, through this sockpuppet, was telling me he owned "in excess of 90 percent" of his family's business. With all the home runs Trump was hitting in real estate, Barron told me, he should be called a billionaire.

But as Greenberg documented, Trump, through his alter ego, wasn't telling the truth, and he wasn't a billionaire, at least not at the time.

To a very real extent, an article like this checks several boxes. Trump is insecure about his wealth? Check. Trump likes to make up people, pretends to be those people, and says nice things about himself to the press? Check. Trump combines narcissism and dishonesty in ways that get a little creepy? Check.

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People walk down Wall Street in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Republican tax plan delivers massive rewards for Wall Street

04/20/18 10:50AM

If you were one of those Americans who argued last year, "Wall Street giants deserve a massive tax break because they don't appear to have nearly enough money," the Associated Press had some news today that should make you feel much better.

An analysis by The Associated Press shows the nation's six big Wall Street banks saved at least $3.59 billion in taxes last quarter, thanks to the recently enacted Trump tax law.

Banks typically kick off the earnings season, and their reports for the January-March quarter are giving investors and the public their first glimpse into how the new tax law is impacting Corporate America. Banks historically paid some of the highest taxes, due to their U.S.-centric business model. Before the Trump tax cuts, these banks paid between 28 to 31 percent of their income each year in corporate taxes.

The results show why banks supported the tax overhaul. Tax rates at banks such as JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley dropped to between 17 and 23 percent.

This is a feature, not a bug, of the Republican tax plan. One of the points of the tax breaks was to deliver a windfall to financial giants that didn't need the money.

All of which reminds me of a secretary in Pennsylvania whom House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was briefly eager to talk about.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to the media on June 3, 2016 in Doral, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Rubio's argument on presidential 'deference' starts to unravel

04/20/18 10:25AM

After Donald Trump nominated Jim Bridenstine to lead NASA, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had the right instincts and opposed the nomination. Bridenstine was obviously unqualified, and the Republican senator said it "could be devastating for the space program" if the far-right Oklahoma congressman led the agency.

And then Rubio changed his mind and helped confirm Bridenstine to the post. Yesterday on the Senate floor, he explained why.

"My view of it is ... that we give great deference to the president on choosing qualifications. It is my view that, the more important the job, the more discretion the president deserves."

This is a terrible argument. The more important a position, the more the Senate should rubber-stamp a president's nominee? The significance of the Senate's advise-and-consent role is diminished when members are considering nominees of great import? All of this seems entirely backwards.

In fact, at a certain level, Rubio knows how absurd this is -- because he made the opposite argument last year:

"My view is that the president deserves wide latitude in their nominations, but the more important the position is, the less latitude they have."

Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that Rubio reflexively opposed many of Barack Obama's nominees for cabinet and other high-ranking posts -- even when the Floridian knew they'd be confirmed anyway -- because he had no interest in presidential "deference" or "discretion."

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Sen. Ted Cruz speaks with Donald Trump during a Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Getty)

Cruz tries to sing the praises of the president who bullied him

04/20/18 09:23AM

Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) relationship with Donald Trump has been difficult at times. After all, Trump has gone after Cruz's wife and suggested Cruz's father played a role in the JFK assassination.

For his part, the Republican senator has told Americans that Trump is a “pathological liar,” a “bully,” a “narcissist,” “utterly amoral,” and my personal favorite, a “sniveling coward.”

It was therefore of interest when Time magazine named the president one of the most influential people of the year, and the editors turned to Cruz to sing Trump's praises. This is what the Texan came up with:

President Trump is a flash-bang grenade thrown into Washington by the forgotten men and women of America. The fact that his first year as Commander in Chief disoriented and distressed members of the media and political establishment is not a bug but a feature.

The same cultural safe spaces that blinkered coastal elites to candidate Trump's popularity have rendered them blind to President Trump's achievements on behalf of ordinary Americans. While pundits obsessed over tweets, he worked with Congress to cut taxes for struggling families. While wealthy celebrities announced that they would flee the country, he fought to bring back jobs and industries to our shores. While talking heads predicted Armageddon, President Trump's strong stand against North Korea put Kim Jong Un back on his heels.

President Trump is doing what he was elected to do: disrupt the status quo. That scares the heck out of those who have controlled Washington for decades, but for millions of Americans, their confusion is great fun to watch.

Not surprisingly, Cruz has received quite a bit of mockery for having written this. He could've told Time that he isn't interested in praising a president who went after his family, but instead, Cruz played the role of loyal partisan soldier and celebrated Trump's efforts.

But what struck me as especially interesting was how, exactly, Cruz hailed Trump.

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Rachel Maddow interviews James Comey: Read the full transcript

04/20/18 09:17AM

If you missed Rachel's interview with former FBI Director James Comey, we've published several video clips from the show, but just as importantly, we've also published the full transcript:

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: So, it is fortuitous timing that the man who wrote these memos is our guest tonight. I’m very much looking forward to asking him about that and everything else under the sun.

James Comey has been a lifelong public servant and law enforcement professional. He served as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia and Southern District of New York where he rose to become U.S. attorney in the Southern District. He then became deputy attorney general of the United States and then director of the FBI.

At this point, he expected to be about halfway through the normal ten-year term for an FBI director, but President Trump fired him in May. Mr. Comey has now written a book about his time in public life and his views of ethical leadership. It is driving everybody absolutely crazy up to and including the president. It’s called "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership."

Director Comey, it's really nice to meet you. Thanks for being here.

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: It’s great to meet you. Great to be here.

MADDOW: Thank you for timing this whole thing, so the memos came out just before you sat down.

COMEY: I had no idea.

MADDOW: Yes. And I haven't actually had a chance to read what they have released. I can tell you how they start. What follows are notes I typed in the vehicle immediately upon exiting Trump Tower on 1-6-17, although I wrote this in less than five minutes after the meeting and I have tried to use actual words spoken, including quoting directly in some places. I have not used quotation marks throughout because my purpose was to capture the substance of what was said. I’m not sure of the proper classification here, so have chosen secret. Please let me know if it should be higher or lower than that.

Do you recognize those as your words?

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Image: James Comey Testifies At Senate Hearing On Russian Interference In US Election

House Republicans obtain, quickly leak Comey memos

04/20/18 08:44AM

In January, the Washington Post published a piece documenting the many ways in which congressional Republicans appeared to be conspiring to "discredit" the Russia investigation. The newspaper has updated that reporting more than once, including again this week.

And while the Post has clearly raised an important point, rooted in fact, the observation is also incomplete -- because congressional Republicans aren't just trying to undermine public confidence in the investigation; they're also taking deliberate steps to interfere with the ongoing federal probe.

For example, after the public learned about the existence of memos then-FBI Director James Comey wrote about his interactions with Donald Trump, congressional Republicans began demanding full copies of the materials. The Justice Department resisted for obvious reasons: the memos are evidence in an ongoing federal investigation, and law enforcement officials aren't in the habit of handing over such evidence to outside parties, especially not to satisfy a partisan political agenda.

But GOP lawmakers didn't care. The more the Justice Department declined, the more House Republicans demanded the materials, pressuring top law enforcement officials, no matter the costs. Yesterday, left with few options, the Justice Department relented.

Unredacted copies of the Comey memos were to be made available to members of Congress Friday at secure facilities at the Capitol. The Justice Department's decision to turn them over to lawmakers came just days after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote to the Republican chairmen of the House Oversight, Intelligence and Judiciary Committees expressing concern that providing them could affect an ongoing criminal investigation.

It took very little time before unknown members of Congress leaked the evidence to the Associated Press, which was almost certainly the point all along. No serious observer has even tried to make the case that Republicans demanded the materials as part of some kind of exercise in oversight; this was always about GOP lawmakers looking for ways to undermine the investigation itself.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein specifically told lawmakers recently that he was concerned about Congress "publicizing" sensitive materials. Republicans have only helped prove him right.

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