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A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest sits on a concrete pedestal at a park named after the confederate cavalryman in Memphis Tenn. (Photo by Adrian Sainz/AP).

What Trump struggles to understand about Confederate statues

08/16/17 09:20AM

Donald Trump unleashed several tirades yesterday in defense of racist protesters, but he seemed especially interested in expressing support for torch-wielding activists who rallied in support of a Robert E. Lee statue. From yesterday's unhinged press conference:

"[Y[ou take a look at some of the groups and you see -- and you'd know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you're not -- but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

"So this week it's Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you all -- you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

This president doesn't just draw an equivalence between racists and their opponents, he also draws an equivalence between America's founders and those who went to war against the United States.

I rather doubt Trump has given this much thought, or has any meaningful familiarity with the history, but given his rant, it's worth taking a moment to set the record straight.

There is no meaningful comparison between George Washington and Confederate leaders. Yes, Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers had important flaws, and often fell short of their own principles, but they didn't commit treason. They didn't try to kill Americans on the battlefield. They didn't wage war against the United States in order to protect the ability to buy and sell human beings.

And so, memorials to their public contributions are secure.

We can also go a step further and acknowledge that the point of these Confederate statues has long been racist. The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report documenting when these statues were erected, and it wasn't immediately after the Civil War.

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Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roy Moore, speaks to the congregation of Kimberly Church of God, June 28, 2015, in Kimberley, Ala. (Photo by Butch Dill/AP)

On Primary Day in Alabama, things don't go GOP leaders' way

08/16/17 08:40AM

Republican leaders, including Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had a plan for Alabama's U.S. Senate special election: go all in for appointed Sen. Luther Strange and propel him to victory on Primary Day.

GOP voters in the state had a different plan.

Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore will meet in a runoff next month to determine who will earn the GOP nomination to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions' Senate seat, the Associated Press projected Tuesday.

Moore cruised to a first-place finish in the Republican side of the special Senate primary, getting 39.8 percent of the vote with 86 percent of the state's precincts reporting. Strange, the incumbent who received the backing of President Donald Trump, came in second, with 32.1 percent of the vote.

Moore and Strange will face off again in six weeks, in a Sept. 26 primary runoff.

And that makes Republican leaders nervous for a reason. Roy Moore, who was twice removed from the state bench for ethics violations, would be a constant source of annoyance for the Senate GOP, which is largely why McConnell and his team have worked so hard on Strange's behalf. Nevertheless, the former state Supreme Court chief justice now looks like the favorite.

For Trump, who recently became an enthusiastic cheerleader for Strange, Moore's success suggests the president's influence is waning -- even in a state he won last fall by nearly 30 points -- which is likely to affect how he's perceived on Capitol Hill between now and the 2018 midterms.

But while the Republican primary made most of the headlines, let's not overlook the Democratic primary.

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Image: Trump speaks at Trump Tower in New York

Trump creates a 'moral reckoning' for his Republican Party

08/16/17 08:00AM

The lede in the New York Times' report on Donald Trump's press conference yesterday reads like a dystopian nightmare.

President Trump buoyed the white nationalist movement on Tuesday as no president has done in generations -- equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rampaged in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.

Never has he gone as far in defending their actions as he did during a wild, street-corner shouting match of a news conference in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, angrily asserting that so-called alt-left activists were just as responsible for the bloody confrontation as marchers brandishing swastikas, Confederate battle flags, anti-Semitic banners and "Trump/Pence" signs.

This is the world we live in now -- one in which a sitting president of the United States publicly praises racist activists as "very fine people" who've been treated "unfairly" by journalists.

It's a moment of national shame, but it's also the basis for a challenge to Donald Trump's partisan allies: what exactly does the Republican Party intend to do with its president in the face of such a scandal?

Steve Schmidt, a longtime GOP strategist, said on the show last night that this is "a seminal moment" for the party. "There can be no equivocation here; the moral failure is complete and it's almost irredeemable," Schmidt explained. "The Republican leaders have to condemn the president for this false equivocation directly by name. They have to censure him, or they risk sliding into a moral abyss with him." He added that this issue forces "a moral reckoning."

And yet, no one can say with confidence what, if anything, will happen.

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Tuesday's Mini-Report, 8.15.17

08/15/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* I'm still trying to catch my breath: "President Donald Trump told reporters Tuesday that the counter-protesters demonstrating against white nationalism were also to blame for the violence at race-fueled riots in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend."

* He's quite a social media wiz: "President Donald Trump took about 20 minutes to delete a pair of tweets on Tuesday morning -- one in which a user called the president a 'fascist' and another showing a train with Trump's name on it running over the CNN logo."

* After this afternoon, I expect more rebukes along these lines: "Walmart's chief executive has issued a strong rebuke of President Trump's response to the protests that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., saying the president 'missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together.'"

* Quite a sight in Durham: "Chanting 'No K.K.K., no fascist U.S.A.,' the protesters slung a rope around the Confederate soldier's neck and pulled. The crowd stepped back, out of the way, and the soldier came crashing to the ground in a heap of crumpled metal."

* Trump-Russia: "Three days after Donald Trump named his campaign foreign policy team in March 2016, the youngest of the new advisers sent an email to seven campaign officials with the subject line: 'Meeting with Russian Leadership - Including Putin.' The adviser, George Papadopoulos, offered to set up 'a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump,' telling them his Russian contacts welcomed the opportunity, according to internal campaign emails read to The Washington Post."

* Boston: "For the second time this summer, the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston was vandalized when a 17-year-old allegedly threw a rock Monday evening through one of the glass panels, shattering it."

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on the protests in Charlottesville Virginia from his golf estate in Bedminster New Jersey

Already stuck in a hole, Trump finds a shovel, keeps digging

08/15/17 05:08PM

All Donald Trump had to do was stop talking. The president embarrassed himself on Saturday when he responded to violence in Charlottesville by condemning bigotry "on many sides," but Trump tried to put things right with a more sensible statement yesterday.

The underlying controversy wasn't over by any stretch, but it'd fade from the headlines if the president managed to just stop making things worse.

And yet, after finding himself in a hole, Donald J. Trump found a shovel -- and kept digging.

In a long, combative exchange with reporters at Trump Tower, the president repeatedly rejected a torrent of bipartisan criticism for waiting several days before naming the right-wing groups and placing blame on "many sides" for the violence that ended with the deaths of a young woman after a car crashed into a crowd.

Mr. Trump repeated that assertion on Tuesday, criticizing "alt-left" groups that he claimed were "very, very violent" when they sought to confront the nationalist and Nazi groups that had gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park. He said there is "blame on both sides."

Sounding very much like a right-wing Twitter feed, the president added, "Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

Trump went on to defend the tiki-torch-wielding racists who gathered on Friday night, before saying, in reference to the racist activists, "Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch."

Why we're supposed to "believe him" is unclear.

I've seen some suggestions that this brings Trump back to where he was over the weekend, but that's ultimately inadequate. I'm afraid this was vastly worse than Saturday's display.

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Empty hospital emergency room. (Stock photo by  DreamPictures/Getty Images)

CBO: High costs if Trump follows through on ACA sabotage threats

08/15/17 04:18PM

For health care advocates, congressional Republicans' difficulties in passing regressive health care legislation have brought some comfort, but the threats haven't gone away. Not only are many GOP lawmakers committed to returning to the issue, but systemic sabotage from Donald Trump remains a real possibility.

Indeed, as we've discussed many times, the president has made repeated threats to cut off cost-sharing reductions (or CSRs) -- a component of the Affordable Care Act that helps cover working families' out-of-pocket costs – which Trump has effectively turned into a political weapon. The mere threat has already pushed consumers' costs higher.

But what if the president followed through on the threat and decide to use this weapon? NBC News' Benjy Sarlin noted the latest findings from the Congressional Budget Office.

Health care premiums will spike, insurers will exit the market, and deficits will increase if President Donald Trump follows through on his threats to cut off government payments to insurance companies, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report.

The cost of a "silver" insurance plan under Obamacare would be 20 percent higher in 2018 and 25 percent higher by 2020 compared to current law, according to the report. About five percent of the population would not be able to buy insurance through Obamacare at all next year, the CBO predicted, because companies would withdraw plans in response to the "substantial uncertainty" created by the move.

The full CBO report, which was prepared at the request of congressional Democratic leaders, is online here, and the executive summary is online here.

The picture painted by the non-partisan budget office isn't pretty. Indeed, it's difficult to find a policy that would force consumers to pay more and increase the overall costs of the program, but if Trump scrapped CSR payments, that's exactly what would happen. As it turns out, sabotaging the American health care system this way is expensive: the CBO found that the deficit would increase by $194 billion over the next decade.

All of which leads to the next question: why in the world would Trump do this?

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Vice President-elect Mike Pence speaks to reporters at Trump Tower, Nov. 29, 2016 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Pence says he 'never witnessed' campaign collusion with Russia

08/15/17 12:43PM

Mike Pence has stuck his neck out for the White House, and on plenty of instances, it hasn't turned out well for the vice president.

For example, Pence said Donald Trump firing then-FBI Director James Comey had nothing to do with the Russia scandal, and as regular readers know, that turned out to be untrue. We also know that Pence’s claims about when he learned of Michael Flynn’s work as a foreign agent clearly aren’t true. The vice president’s claims about Flynn’s communications with Russia were also proven to be false. And, of course, when Pence said no one from Team Trump spoke with Russian officials before Election Day, that wasn’t even close to being true.

It's apparently dawned on the Indiana Republican that he should be a little more circumspect when issuing blanket denials, especially when it comes to Team Trump and the Russia scandal. CBS News reported this morning:

Vice President Mike Pence says he "never witnessed" any evidence of collusion between the Russian government and Trump campaign officials during the 2016 campaign, and reaffirmed his commitment to cooperating with the special counsel's investigation into Russian election interference and possible Russian ties to the Trump organization.

During his visit to a Christian mission in Cartagena, Colombia on Monday, Pence told reporters "during all of my experience on the campaign, I never witnessed any evidence of collusion or any of the allegations, I'm not aware of that ever having occurred."

Note the caution and the caveats. Months ago, when Pence was asked whether campaign officials communicated with Russian officials during Russia's espionage operation, the vice president said, "Of course not." We now know, of course, that the truth is the exact opposite.

And so, phrases such as "of course not" have been replaced with lawyerly phrasing such as "I never witnessed" and "I'm not aware of."

It's almost as if the vice president is preparing his defense in the event we learn about even more collusion between Trump World and Moscow -- beyond the evidence of collusion that's already come to light.

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Tuesday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.15.17

08/15/17 12:00PM

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

* Primary voters in Alabama will head to the polls today in the state's U.S. Senate special election. Donald Trump continues to scramble in support of Sen. Luther Strange (R), tweeting twice about him this morning, and recording robocalls on the appointed senator's behalf.

* In Nevada, the Democratic National Committee announced yesterday it's putting Sen. Dean Heller (R) on a couple of billboards, highlighting his vote for the Republicans' unpopular health care bill. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, is creating billboards targeting Heller's likely Democratic opponent, Rep. Jacky Rosen, trying to tie her to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

* On a related note, Heller told reporters in October 2016 that he was 99% certain he wouldn't vote for Donald Trump. It took a while for the GOP senator to come clean, but Heller finally admitted yesterday that he did, in fact, vote for his party's presidential ticket.

* Some odd people end up running for Congress: "House Speaker Paul Ryan's Republican challenger says he believes an unfounded right-wing online conspiracy theory dubbed 'pizzagate.' Paul Nehlen voiced his opinion during an online question-and-answer session with voters earlier this month on Reddit. He was asked, 'What are your thoughts on Pizzagate?' In response, Nehlen wrote, 'I believe it is real.'"

* Because contemporary politics continues to get even weirder, the head of the Senate Republican leadership's super PAC said on Friday's he's "very interested" in having Kid Rock run for the U.S. Senate in Michigan next year.

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The Oklahoma City skyline is pictured in an aerial photo, May 15, 2014. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Anti-government bomb plot thwarted in Oklahoma

08/15/17 11:21AM

Before 9/11, the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil was carried out in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two anti-government radicals. The blast left 168 people, including many children, dead.

Someone apparently wanted a sequel.

Federal authorities were holding a man in custody Monday who domestic terrorism investigators said planned and tried to execute an anti-government bombing of an Oklahoma City bank.

Documents filed in federal district court say that Jerry Drake Varnell, 23, drove what he believed was a stolen van containing a 1,000-pound ammonium nitrate bomb early Saturday morning to an alley beside BancFirst in downtown Oklahoma City.

There was, however, no real bomb. Varnell came under FBI surveillance several months ago, when he started discussing plans for a domestic bombing, and the people the terrorist suspect thought were his co-conspirators were actually law enforcement officials. As the NBC News report added, "The cell phone that Varnell believed was a detonator dialed law enforcement, and the getaway driver was an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

The alleged terrorist was apparently another anti-government radical, and in a Facebook message he thought would be posted after his plot succeeded, Varnell wrote that the bombing was in "retaliation" for the "freedoms that have been taken away from the American people."

The officials involved in this case are to be congratulated, of course, for preventing the suspect from hurting anyone, but the news got me thinking about Sebastian Gorka, an adviser to Donald Trump who routinely appears in the media.

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