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U.S. Border Patrol officers keep along the border fence separating U.S. and Mexico in the town of El Paso, Texas on Feb. 17, 2016. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

Why Trump's lie about El Paso, Texas, is so important

02/11/19 04:40PM

Donald Trump will return to the campaign trail tonight, just three months removed from last fall's midterm elections, and roughly 20 months before his own re-election bid. The president is not, however, headed for a competitive battleground, but rather, is headlining an event in El Paso, Texas.

For Trump, the city in western Texas is of particular significance because its recent successes are, by the Republican's version of events, emblematic of a larger truth.

"The border city of El Paso, Texas used to have extremely high rates of violent crime -- one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities," the president argued in his State of the Union address. "Now, immediately upon its building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country. Simply put: Walls work, and walls save lives."

The argument has a certain simplistic appeal: the border city was incredibly dangerous, then it got a wall, and now it's incredibly safe. Ergo, border walls are effective at improving security.

The problem, of course, is that Trump either has no idea what he's talking point or he assumes you're easily fooled.

According to law enforcement data, the city had low crime rates well before a border barrier was constructed between 2008 and mid-2009.

Violent crime has been dropping in El Paso since its modern-day peak in 1993 and was at historic lows before a fence was authorized by Congress in 2006. Violent crime actually ticked up during the border fence's construction and after its completion, according to police data collected by the FBI.

As Trump lies go, this one stands out for a couple of reasons. First, it was carefully scripted. It's one thing when the president peddles nonsense because he got confused by something he saw on television, or because he cooked up some oddity in his overactive imagination. But in a State of the Union address, which the Republican read from his trusted teleprompter, the standards are supposed to be higher.

And yet, Trump's claims were brazenly untrue. At no point in recent memory was El Paso one of the nation's most dangerous cities, and at no point after it received border barriers did the city see a sharp drop in the crime rate.

Even local Republicans didn't appreciate the president lying so shamelessly about their community.

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An employee at a money changer counts $100 bills.

Broken promises, failed predictions pile up for Republican tax plan

02/11/19 12:51PM

The Republican tax plan has never been popular, but its GOP proponents adopted a philosophy similar to the one embraced by Democrats during the health care debate a decade ago: once Americans got to know the policy, they'd start to like it a whole lot more.

For Dems, those hopes proved prophetic: the Affordable Care Act now enjoys fairly broad national support. For Republicans, more than a year after their tax plan was implemented, a series of broken promises and failed predictions have made their predicament worse.

As NBC News reported, the public's concerns appear especially acute as tax season gets underway.

The first tax season with President Donald Trump's new tax plan is under way and it's off to a disappointing start for early filers. The average refund this year is down 8.4 percent, to $1,865, for the week ending Feb. 1, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service. [...]

Early filers, who were expecting bigger refunds after the White House promised a $4,000 "raise," under the Trump tax plan, took to Twitter to vent their frustrations, using the hashtag #GOPTaxScam.

Edward Karl, vice president of taxation for the American Institute of CPAs, told Politico, "There are going to be a lot of unhappy people over the next month. Taxpayers want a large refund."

And many taxpayers aren't going to get one -- which won't satisfy those who believed Republican rhetoric about the "$4,000 average raise" the typical household would see as a result of the GOP policy.

Complicating matters, of course, is the sheer volume of promises that failed to come to fruition.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.11.19

02/11/19 12:00PM

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

* Several weeks after launching a presidential exploratory committee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) formally kicked off her 2020 campaign, calling for "fundamental change," even if the "cowards and armchair critics" call it "extreme or radical." Her choice of locations was notable: Warren chose Lawrence, "a distressed mill town about 30 miles outside Boston, with a more obscure, but very telling history: Just over 100 years ago in the factory buildings that served as a backdrop for Warren's speech, women textile workers defied bosses and bayonets to start a strike, that as Warren said, 'changed America.'"

* On a related note, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III introduced Warren and endorsed her candidacy.

* Roughly 24 hours later, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who'll be on the show with Rachel tonight, launched her own presidential campaign at a snowy event in Minnesota. A sense of community "is fracturing across our nation right now, worn down by the petty and vicious nature of our politics," she argued. "We are all tired of the shutdowns and the putdowns, the gridlock and the grandstanding."

* As was the case with Warren in Massachusetts, Klobuchar benefited from Minnesota officials showing up in force to lend their support to the senator. Among those on hand for her kickoff were Sen. Tina Smith (D) and Gov. Tim Walz (D).

* A Washington Post-Schar School poll released over the weekend found Virginians deadlocked over whether Gov. Ralph Northam (D) should resign: 47% support his ouster, 47% do not. Those results will probably encourage the governor to dig in further.

* Despite his recent failed attempt to derail Nancy Pelosi's bid to become House Speaker, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) conceded to BuzzFeed yesterday, "I'm thinking about running for president. I'm not definitely running, but I'm going to take a very hard look at it. A very serious look at it. Because I believe it's time for a new generation of leadership, and we gotta send Donald Trump packing."

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Supreme Court Building

Even some conservatives question Supreme Court's judgment in Ray case

02/11/19 10:47AM

In Saturday's installment of "This Week in God," we discussed the Supreme Court allowing Alabama to execute Domineque Ray, a Muslim inmate who was offered a Christian minister to stay at his side when the state killed him. Ray requested a religious leader from his own faith, but the state balked.

Following a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected the inmate's request for a stay, ignoring the rather obvious First Amendment problems associated with Alabama favoring one religion over all others. The outcome generated quite a bit of criticism from the left, but civil libertarians weren't entirely alone.

The Washington Post's Eugene Scott noted that some on the right were critical, too.

Conservative columnist Bethany Mandel tweeted: "The state should not play God. But if it does, it shouldn't deny a (wo)man a way to atone to their God before doing so."

Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine, tweeted: "As a conservative who opposes both the death penalty and religious discrimination I find this
story appalling."

And Southern Baptist minister Alan Cross tweeted: "Every time we want the state to favor Christianity over other religions, the result is a loss of religious freedom for all."

Quite right. When public officials, with the U.S. Supreme Court's approval, elevate one faith tradition over others, it creates the conditions our First Amendment has long sought to prevent. Christians who shrugged with indifference when five conservative justices turned away Domineque Ray's appeal should consider the long-term effects of such a principle.

Today, it's Christians who receive special treatment in Alabama. What will conservatives say when it's a different faith that's elevated in a different state tomorrow?

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Trump's vows about not telegraphing his military moves completely unravel

02/11/19 10:10AM

Donald Trump's position on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria has taken a few unpredictable turns over the last few months, but as of yesterday, U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, left little doubt about our exit. Reuters reported:

The United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, the top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday. [...]

The U.S. military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria. Asked whether the withdrawal of America's more than 2,000 troops would begin in days or weeks, Votel said: "Probably weeks. But again, it will all be driven by the situation on the ground."

"In terms of the withdrawal ... I think we're right on track with where we wanted to be," Votel told reporters traveling with him during a trip to the Middle East.

It's important to emphasize that the general added that the details may yet change, depending on conditions on the ground, but Votel -- who was not consulted on U.S. policy in Syria, despite his CentCon leadership role -- nevertheless made clear that he expects the withdrawal of American servicemen and women to unfold in the coming weeks.

All of which leads to an awkward question for the White House: didn't the president vow never to telegraph his decisions related to national security? Isn't the Republican now doing precisely what he said he'd never do?

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, for a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice.  (AP Photo/ Evan...

Susan Collins placed a bad bet on Brett Kavanaugh

02/11/19 09:20AM

Louisiana passed a law in 2014 that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their practice. The law was effectively identical to a Texas law that the Supreme Court had already struck down, so when the issue recently reached the high court again, reproductive rights advocates hoped the justices would block enforcement of the Louisiana law while the case was considered on the merits.

The Supreme Court did exactly that last week, but not without some effort: five justices voted to block enforcement of the Louisiana policy, but four voted the other way.

Those four justices were aware of the recent precedent; they knew the state's policy did nothing to protect women; and they recognized the undue burdens the law would place on patients in Louisiana. But in June Medical Services v. Gee, the Supreme Court's four most conservative members voted to allow the Louisiana law to go into effect anyway.

As Slate's Mark Joseph Stern explained, one justice in particular appeared eager to lead the charge.

The Louisiana statute is a direct violation of the Supreme Court's 2016 ruling in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, and until the court overturns that decision, the Louisiana law cannot take effect. To [Chief Justice John] Roberts, this precedent matters.

To Justice Brett Kavanaugh, it does not. Kavanaugh so disagreed with the majority that he wrote a dissent explaining why the Louisiana law should be allowed to move forward -- an opinion that should not be taken as anything less than a declaration of war on Roe v. Wade.

For many of Kavanaugh's critics, this didn't come as too big of a surprise. But it did raise a related question:

Didn't Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) put her reputation on the line, assuring the public that Kavanaugh wouldn't do this?

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A stethoscope sits on an examination table in an exam room at a Community Clinic Inc. health center in Takoma Park, Maryland, April 8, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Would it really be that difficult for Trump to have a normal physical?

02/11/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump was given his annual physical exam on Friday, and soon after, the White House physician reported to the public that the president is in "very good health."

"While the reports and recommendations are being finalized, I am happy to announce the president of the United States is in very good health and I anticipate he will remain so for the duration of his presidency and beyond," Dr. Sean Conley said in a statement Friday evening after the president's exam at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Over the course of approximately four hours, I performed and supervised the evaluation with a panel of 11 different board-certified specialists. He did not undergo any procedures requiring sedation or anesthesia," Conley said.

The statement summarizing the physician's findings was fairly brief, and Conley noted that the exam included some test results that were not immediately available. Trump's physical last year included, at the president's insistence, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (often known as "MoCA"), and it's not yet clear if the president cognitive abilities were tested again on Friday.

Most of Conley's public assessment was straightforward and unremarkable, except for that one part: the doctor believes Trump will remain in good health "for the duration of his presidency and beyond."

Really? How would the physician know that? For that matter, why would the doctor offer an answer to a question that wasn't asked?

There's no expectation that a presidential physician will make predictions about uncertain future events, but Trump's doctor apparently felt the need to go there anyway.

The Washington Post's Aaron Blake added:

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Mick Mulvaney

Echoing Trump's threat on investigations, Mulvaney admits too much

02/11/19 08:00AM

The most memorable line from Donald Trump's State of the Union address was, oddly enough, an implicit threat. "If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation," the president declared. "It just doesn't work that way!"

The message wasn't subtle: Trump is only prepared to work constructively with Congress on legislation if lawmakers agree to look the other way on his many scandals. The more Democrats exercise their oversight responsibilities, the less the White House will agree to cooperate on public policy.

The ultimatum was striking in its simplicity: Trump believes Congress will have to choose between tackling substantive issues and scrutinizing his most glaring controversies -- because he won't tolerate both.

On "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, Chris Wallace asked acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney whether the president recognizes the importance of Congress' oversight role. Mulvaney said Trump is "not trying to discourage" lawmakers from completing their duties, but he is telling them, "We can either work together on legislation or we can spend all our time with you doing investigations, but you can't do both." (That sounds like he's "trying to discourage.")

It led to this exchange:

WALLACE: Wait, you can do both and presidents have done both plenty of times.

MULVANEY: Right. But don't -- again, it's not reasonable to expect the president to work with you on Monday on a big infrastructure bill, and then on Tuesday, have you punch him in the face over 15 different investigations. [...] It's very difficult to do both. I just think that's human nature.

The reference to "human nature" was of particular interest, because to hear Mulvaney tell it, investigations will hurt Trump's feelings. And if lawmakers make him feel bad, "human nature" dictates that he won't want to work with federal policymakers on issues of national significance.

The reality, whether Trump appreciates this or not, is that the presidency is a profoundly difficult job, which occasionally requires leaders to work with people they disagree with. Presidents don't have the luxury of telling powerful lawmakers, "I'm mad that you scrutinized my scandal, so I'm taking governing off the table."

But then Mulvaney added something else that he probably shouldn't have.

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This Week in God, 2.9.19

02/09/19 07:21AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a closer look at a step the U.S. Supreme Court took this week that seemed wholly at odds with bedrock principles of religious liberty.

At issue was Alabama's plan to execute a man, Domineque Ray, for the robbery, rape, and murder of a 15-year-old girl, Tiffany Harville, in 1995. His guilt was not in doubt. She wasn't even his first victim. Rather, what mattered in this case was the method in which the state planned to kill him.

Alabama said it would permit a Christian minister -- an employee of the state prison system -- to be in the execution chamber with Ray at the time of his death, but Ray was a Muslim and requested an imam. Officials balked and a court fight ensued.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff, citing the First Amendment, and issued a stay. If Christian inmates can have a Christian minister with them during their executions, a unanimous appellate court panel concluded, then inmates of minority faiths deserve equal treatment.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, rejected the appellate court's reasoning. As the New York Times  reported, the court's majority said little in defense of its decision, though Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters, made a striking case that the majority was "profoundly wrong."

Under Alabama's policy, she wrote, "a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites.... But if an inmate practices a different religion -- whether Islam, Judaism or any other -- he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side," Justice Kagan wrote.

"That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause's core principle of denominational neutrality," she added, referring to the clause of the First Amendment that bars the government from favoring one religious denomination over another. [...]

"Ray has put forward a powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated at the moment the state puts him to death," she wrote. "The 11th Circuit wanted to hear that claim in full. Instead, this court short-circuits that ordinary process -- and itself rejects the claim with little briefing and no argument -- just so the state can meet its preferred execution date."

And that's ultimately what makes this dispute so notable. It's not about feeling sympathy for a man convicted of heinous crimes; it's about the underlying legal principle that in the United States, people of every faith tradition -- and those who've chosen not to follow a spiritual path at all -- will be treated equally under the law.

On matters of religious liberty, the government must remain neutral and not play favorites, and yet, Alabama is the nation's only state with an official policy of having a Christian minister -- and only a Christian minister -- in the execution chamber.

The five conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court didn't seem to care.

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