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Rev. Pat Robertson, center, talks to attendees at a prayer breakfast at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. on Jan. 16, 2010. (Photo by Clem Britt/AP)

This Week in God, 10.20.18

10/20/18 07:49AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at a striking evangelical perspective on the suspected murder of Jamal Khashoggi from one of the nation's most infamous religious right leaders.

On Monday morning, TV preacher Pat Robertson told his "700 Club" audience that Khashoggi's apparent slaying is less significant than an arms deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia. As the estimable Kyle Mantyla reported at Right Wing Watch reported, Robertson returned to the subject a day later.

"We've got to cool the rhetoric," Robertson said. "Calls for sanctions and calls for punitive actions against the Saudis is ill-advised.... You've got a hundred billion dollars' worth of arms sales -- which is, you know, that's one of those things -- but more than that, we've got to have some Arab allies. We have to have it! We cannot alienate a biggest player in the Middle East who is a bulwark against Iran."

When Robertson's co-host Wendy Griffith argued that we cannot have governments killing critical journalists with impunity, Robertson dismissed those concerns.

"We've had so many people killed," he responded. "We've had CIA people killed in Lebanon. People have been taken hostage over the years. I know it's bad, but we've had all kinds of stuff, but you don't blow up an international alliance over one person. I mean, I'm sorry."

A few things. First, there is no $100 billion arms deal. Second, Robertson was perfectly willing to jeopardize an international alliance over one person when the person was a Christian evangelist in Turkey. Third, drawing a moral parallel between the United States and Saudi Arabia -- as if the two countries have comparable records on human rights -- is quite a departure from the right's usual approach to patriotism.

But even putting these relevant details aside, the televangelist's on-air comments were emblematic of just how far some evangelical Christians are prepared to go to defend Donald Trump's position. Christian principles about the value of human life are nice, but a multi-billion-dollar arms deal that doesn't really exist is, evidently, quite a bit nicer.

Stephen Colbert, dressed in a robe and a fake beard, did a great bit on his show this week, pointing to the Ten Commandments' prohibition on killing, and joking about its apparent asterisk: "Thou shalt not kill -- unless there's a lot of coinage on the table.... If that be the case, then the big guy upstairs is more than willing to look the other way."

It's worse, of course, given the fact that there isn't even a lot of coinage on the table.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.19.18

10/19/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* We'll have more on today's indictment on tonight's show: "A Russian woman who works for an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin has been charged with attempting to meddle in the 2018 midterm election."

* This seems very important: "Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter."

* This treaty has been around for three decades: "The Trump administration is planning to tell Russian leaders next week that it is preparing to exit the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, according to American officials and foreign diplomats."

* Saudi Arabia: "Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has decided to take part in an anti-terror finance meeting with Saudi security officials and their Middle Eastern counterparts in Riyadh later this month, opting to attend despite growing global outrage over the suspected murder of a U.S.-based journalist at the hands of Saudi operatives, according to three people familiar with his travel plans."

* Is this really how the right operates now? "Hard-line Republicans and conservative commentators are mounting a whispering campaign against Jamal Khashoggi that is designed to protect President Trump from criticism of his handling of the dissident journalist's alleged murder by operatives of Saudi Arabia -- and support Trump's continued aversion to a forceful response to the oil-rich desert kingdom."

* In reference to Khashoggi's suspected murder, Trump told the New York Times, "This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately." Quick follow-up: exactly which part of the slaying does Trump consider "unfortunate"? The killing or international interest in the killing?

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Image: Ronny Jackson walks on Capitol Hill following a meeting

Trump concedes his VA nominee 'might not have been qualified'

10/19/18 04:24PM

Donald Trump has made multiple campaign trips to Montana this election season for a specific reason: the president appears to be on a personal vendetta to defeat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) for his role in defeating Ronny Jackson's nomination to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The trouble, as Trump himself acknowledged at a rally in Montana last night, is that his nominee, a former White House physician, didn't deserve the job. From the transcript:

"I said, 'Admiral, how would you like to head up the V.A.? I want somebody great. You're an admiral, you're a leader.' And he's 50 years old. He never had a problem in his whole life. A little bit like Justice Kavanaugh, you know, really a very fine, high-quality, handsome guy. Never had a problem.

"And he said, 'sir, I had never thought of it, but I'll do whatever your wish is, sir.' He didn't really want it. He didn't really want. And he might not have been qualified."

From there, the president went on to argue that Tester went after Jackson "violently" until the doctor withdrew from consideration, which isn't even close to what happened.

But let's not brush past that "he might not have been qualified" concession too quickly. This was a striking admission that Trump realizes he chose someone to lead a massive federal bureaucracy, responsible for the well-being of America's veterans, who had no business accepting the post.

And with this in mind, it seems the president should be less upset with Jon Tester and more upset with Donald Trump. It's not as if the senator forced the White House to choose an unqualified nominee.

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Profanity-laced fight in the West Wing punctuates Trump World chaos

10/19/18 03:57PM

As best as we can tell, the conversation in the White House started as a policy discussion about border security. As NBC News reported, it didn't end that way.

The differences escalated to an angry, profanity-laced exchange on Thursday between White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and national security adviser John Bolton as a Honduran migrant caravan of roughly 4,000 people approaches the U.S. border. The dispute was so heated, according to several people, that Kelly ended up storming out of the White House shortly afterward.

NBC News spoke to four people familiar with what transpired, who agreed that the meeting began with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen explaining a recent increase in border crossings, which led John Bolton to blame her for failing to do more. Kelly sided with Nielsen, telling Bolton he failed to appreciate the substantive challenges.

According to three people familiar with the exchange, Kelly repeatedly used the f-word to punctuate his points. These people said Kelly, who had served as Trump's first Secretary of Homeland Security, fiercely defended Nielsen, who has come under fire from Trump over her handling of the border.

The advisers then went into the Oval Office to discuss the matter with the president. Kelly ultimately stormed out of the White House early with no resolution on the issue, these people said.

"I'm f---ng out of here," Kelly said, according to one person briefed on the exchange. The

Trump later told reporters he "had not heard about" the profanity-laced White House argument, which, like so much of what the president says, seems very hard to believe.

By all accounts, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was not part of the dispute, but she nevertheless issued an official statement that read in part, "While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another. However, we are furious at the failure of Congressional Democrats to help us address this growing crisis. They should be ashamed..."

So let me get this straight, the White House chief of staff and the White House national security adviser screamed at each other, and Sanders wants to blame Democrats -- the only folks in D.C. with no power, who have offered Trump six different bipartisan compromises on immigration, each of which included border-security measures?

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses criticism of his travel practices before delivering a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance." at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Another Trump cabinet secretary rebuked for violating federal policies

10/19/18 02:26PM

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke didn't need another controversy that cast him in an unflattering light, but now that he's been caught violating federal policies again, one of the most scandal-plagued members of Donald Trump's cabinet is the subject of another round of critical headlines.

Politico  reported overnight:

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sought to skirt or alter department policies to justify his taxpayer-funded trips with his wife, the agency's inspector general said in the latest critical report on travel practices by President Donald Trump's Cabinet members.

Zinke's maneuvers included pressing Interior staffers to research whether his wife, Lola, could become a volunteer at the agency, a move the employees said was designed to enable her to travel with him at taxpayer expense, according to a report obtained by POLITICO that the inspector general's office will release next week. It said he also violated Interior policy by have her travel with him in federal vehicles.

Taken in isolation, this may seem like a fairly minor transgression. If Zinke's record were otherwise spotless, and there were no other concerns about his record on ethics, it might be easier to overlook these revelations.

But as regular readers know, the Interior secretary's record is most certainly not otherwise spotless.

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Image: Donald Trump,Melania Trump

Trump reportedly says he barely knows Saudi Arabia's MBS

10/19/18 12:40PM

The Associated Press this week reminded Donald Trump that his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, directly implicated him in a felony during a recent court appearance. The president responded by insisting that his former lawyer is "lying," adding, in reference to the former vice president of the Trump Organization, "Michael Cohen was a PR person who did small legal work, very small legal work."

As a factual matter, the response plainly wasn't true. But as a political matter, Trump's rhetoric was a timely reminder: if you run into trouble, the president will say he does not know you, even if he does.

The New York Times  reported today, for example, on what Trump has begun saying behind the scenes about Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of Saudi Arabia's apparent murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In conversations with allies, the president has begun to distance himself from Prince Mohammed, 33, saying he barely knows him. And he has played down the relationship that Mr. Kushner has cultivated with the Saudi heir.

As of last week, Trump was only too eager to boast about his "excellent" relationship with officials in Riyadh. This week, the Republican's line is effectively, "Mohammed bin who?" (It's also far too late to downplay the ties between the crown prince and Trump's son-in-law and White House aide, Jared Kushner.)

Prince Mohammed has a lot of company on the list of people Trump knows but says he barely knows.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.19.18

10/19/18 12:00PM

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

* The number of states with early voting underway will expand by two tomorrow, with Nevada and New Mexico joining the list. Both states are home to several key contests, including open gubernatorial races and two U.S. Senate races.

* On a related note, early voting appears to be off to a fast start in Virginia.

* In Texas' U.S. Senate race, Beto O'Rourke (D) has shifted his strategy a bit, launching his first negative ads against Ted Cruz (R). There are three new spots, and each criticizes the incumbent senator on a different issue: education, health care, and immigration.

* In related news, Donald Trump's upcoming event in Texas has been moved from one mid-size venue to a slightly larger mid-size venue. The president had previously promised to campaign with Cruz at "the biggest stadium in Texas" he could find. Evidently, there wasn't enough demand for Trump to keep that promise.

* And before we move on from the Texas race, Beto O'Rourke addressed rumors last night about a possible presidential bid. "The answer is no," the Texan said, adding, "I promise to you, and most importantly, to the people of Texas, that I'll serve every single day of a six-year term in the United States Senate and I won't leave this state to go run for president."

* I'm skeptical of the idea that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has a meaningful national following, but the Republican National Committee has launched a national tour for the South Carolina senator, dispatching him to campaign for the party's gubernatorial and congressional candidates in 12 states.

* No longer concerned about his election plans in Utah, Senate hopeful Mitt Romney has begun campaigning in other states, raising money for GOP candidates in a variety of other states.

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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)

Trump admin says Ben Carson peddled '100 percent false information'

10/19/18 11:26AM

Seven days ago, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced that one of his aides, Suzanne Israel Tufts, was leaving her post -- after just seven months -- to serve as the Interior Department's inspector general. This quickly turned into a rather elaborate mess.

After all, Interior Department's inspector general is investigating Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and replacing her would risk derailing her ongoing work. For that matter, as Rachel explained on the show last night, Suzanne Israel Tufts is woefully unqualified to oversee an internal federal watchdog office.

The whole thing reeked of corruption, right up until yesterday afternoon, when the Trump administration said there'd been a big misunderstanding.

...Interior Department officials said that they did not approve the hiring of a political appointee as their agency's acting watchdog, calling the announcement of her move by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson "100 percent false information."

The Interior Department's longtime inspector general, Mary Kendall, remains at her post. As luck would have it, she released some fresh information yesterday that created new problems for Zinke.

But before we move on from this mess, it sure would be nice to know how it unfolded in the first place. Is this all really Ben Carson's fault?

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Image: U.S. Attorney General Sessions testifies before a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington

Jeff Sessions' competence at DOJ called into question

10/19/18 10:47AM

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's career was ultimately derailed by an avalanche of corruption allegations, but there was a related problem that was too often overlooked: the far-right EPA chief was careless in pursuit of his own goals.

The New York Times  reported in April that Pruitt was in such a rush to gut environmental protections, he ended up undermining his efforts with sloppy, politically motivated work. Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard, told the Times, "In their rush to get things done, [Pruitt and his team are] failing to dot their i's and cross their t's. And they're starting to stumble over a lot of trip wires. They're producing a lot of short, poorly crafted rulemakings that are not likely to hold up in court."

Similarly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is likely to leave his post fairly soon because Donald Trump believes he's done too little to shield the White House and Republicans from federal law enforcement. But like Pruitt, Sessions is also burdened by questions about his competence. The New York Times  reported today:

During his 20 months in office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has swept in perhaps the most dramatic political shift in memory at the Justice Department, from the civil rights-centered agenda of the Obama era to one that favors his hard-line conservative views on immigration, civil rights and social issues.

Now, discontent and infighting have taken hold at the Justice Department, in part because Mr. Sessions was so determined to carry out that transformation that he ignored dissent, at times putting the Trump administration on track to lose in court and prompting high-level departures, according to interviews over several months with two dozen current and former career department lawyers who worked under Mr. Sessions.

Reading the article, my first instinct was that it was part of a campaign to help justify Sessions' ouster: the president doesn't trust the attorney general, so Trump loyalists told the New York Times that Sessions is incompetent.

And while there may be something to that, the truth of the matter is, the questions about Sessions' competence are rooted in fact.

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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)

The Democrats' election message is clear (and it's not about Trump)

10/19/18 10:00AM

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) appeared on a Sunday show last month and raised a familiar complaint about politics: the parties aren't focused on policy or problem-solving.

"There's massive stuff happening in America," the Nebraska Republican argued, "and these parties are really pretty content to do 24-hour news cycle screaming at each other. The main thing that the Democrats are for is being anti-Republican and anti-Trump, and the main thing Republicans are for is being anti-Democrat and anti-CNN. And neither of these things are really worth getting out of bed in the morning for."

It's a familiar refrain, which voters routinely raise: Republicans complain about Democrats, Democrats complain about Republicans, and campaigns end up ignoring the issues that truly affect regular folks.

The problem with the argument is that it's plainly wrong. The Wesleyan Media Project published its latest findings yesterday after examining campaign advertising nationwide.

It's official: the 2018 midterms are about health care. In the period between September 18 and October 15, nearly half (45.9 percent) of airings in federal races mentioned the topic while nearly a third (30.2 percent) of gubernatorial airings did the same. Although both parties are mentioning health care, the topic is most prominent in ads supporting Democrats, appearing in 54.5 percent of pro-Democratic airings.

In U.S. Senate races, 47% of Democratic advertising focused on health care, followed by 12% of ads on taxes, and another 12% on jobs. In gubernatorial races, 45% of Democratic ads were about health care, followed by 33% on education, and 23% on taxes.

And in U.S. House races, 61% of Democratic advertising focused on health care, 21% on taxes, and 20% on Medicare. (Since Medicare is obviously a health care program, it suggests a combined 81% of the House Democratic message has been about health care in one way or another.)

Those who continue to believe Dems are pushing nothing more than a hollow, anti-Trump message aren't paying close enough attention.

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Strong winds and heavy surf cover Hwy 64 at the Albemarle Sound caused by Hurricane Arthur on July 3, 2014 in Nags Head, North Carolina.

Some NC Republicans rethink the value of denying climate change

10/19/18 09:20AM

Six years ago, a state-appointed science panel in North Carolina warned policymakers that sea levels would rise 39 inches over the next century, and state officials needed to start taking steps to prepare. In response, Republicans in the state legislature insisted that the findings be ignored.

Instead, GOP lawmakers pushed an alternative: North Carolina should use a historical model -- preparing for the future by looking at past sea-level rises -- and work from the assumption that the conditions that existed before the climate crisis would remain unchanged going forward. The tactic quickly became an example of dangerous climate denialism.

It took a while, but things are a little different in North Carolina now. The Washington Post  reported yesterday:

While President Trump continued this week to deny the effects of climate change in the face of overwhelming scientific agreement that it is occurring -- most recently noted in a landmark United Nations report that he has dismissed -- a discernible shift appears to be occurring among Republican voters in North Carolina, a state pummeled by two hurricanes in two years.

The impact, say residents of this conservative congressional district [in Wilmington], lies right before their eyes, prompting conversations among farmers, fishermen and others on how climate change has hurt the local economy and environment.

The article pointed to polling Elon University conducted earlier this month that found 37% of North Carolina Republicans believe global warming is "very likely" to negatively impact North Carolina coastal communities in the next 50 years. The number should obviously be much higher, but it's triple the number Elon University found last year.

"I always thought climate change was a bunch of nonsense, but now I really do think it is happening," Margie White, a 65-year-old Trump supporter, told the Post.

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