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Democratic presidential candidates wave as they enter the stage for the second night of the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami.

Twenty candidates, two debates, four hours, and a few happy campaigns

06/28/19 08:46AM

If you've seen any coverage of last night's debate, you've probably heard that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) walked away the big winner, while former Vice President Joe Biden fell far short. From where I sat, that assessment sounds about right.

It was the 10-word interjection that upended the trajectory of the night, if not the 2020 campaign so far. "I would like to speak on the issue of race," Ms. Harris declared. The room soon went silent.

Ms. Harris turned to address Mr. Biden, directly and personally, marrying her own identity as an African-American woman with a pointed critique of not just his recent rhetoric about working with segregationists but what they worked on together. "You also worked with them to oppose busing," she said. "And you know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me." [...]

She pressed on, framing her follow-ups as the prosecutor she once was. "Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?"

No one should be surprised that the California senator excelled. To know anything about Kamala Harris is to recognize the kind of skills she brings to the table: watch her in any Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and it's obvious the former prosecutor and state attorney general is always prepared and sharp.

Transferring those skills to the debate stage obviously wasn't difficult.

As she dominated, I started thinking about the occasional political value of the luck of the draw. Ahead of the back-to-back debates, the DNC randomly assigned the contenders, and the campaigns had literally no control over which night they'd compete and against whom.

We'll never know, of course, but what would the conversation look like if Harris and Biden didn't share a stage? She would've excelled anyway -- Harris bested her rivals because of her talent, not because of luck -- but would a different lineup have left the former vice president less bruised?

Indeed, it's a fun counterfactual to consider as a thought experiment. What if Julian Castro hadn't competed against Beto O'Rourke? What if Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders had shared a stage? If Warren had gone up against Biden, would the former vice president have struggled just as much?

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Alongside Putin, Trump makes light of foreign election interference

06/28/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the side of the G-20 summit in Japan a few hours ago, and as the two briefly addressed reporters, the American president reveled in the attention. "It's like the Academy Awards," Trump said to his Russian counterpart.

There was, however, one exchange of particular interest.

As reporters shouted questions and cameras clicked, Trump cocked his head when asked by NBC News whether he would tell Putin not to interfere in the vote next year.

"The answer to the question is, of course I will. 'Don't meddle in the election,'" Trump said. As Putin smiled broadly, Trump briefly raised his finger toward Putin before turning away and repeating: "Don't meddle in the election."

Over the din in the meeting room, it was unclear whether Trump had initially said "Don't meddle in the election, please," or "Don't meddle in the election, president." Journalists in the room and watching video of the exchange heard him say "please," but a White House transcript later maintained that Trump had said "president."

The official White House transcript is online here.

This is an instance in which the way Trump spoke matters at least as much as what he said. If you watch the clip, you'll hear NBC News' Freddie Tunnard ask, "Mr. President, will you tell Russia not to meddle in the 2020 election?"

"Yes, of course, I will," the Republican replied lightheartedly. Turning his head a bit, he added, "Don't meddle in the election."

Trump smiled as if this were amusing -- and so did Putin.

Three years removed from a sophisticated military-intelligence operation that targeted American elections, the beneficiary of the most serious election attack in our nation's history finds this a subject worth joking about.

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Thursday's Mini-Report, 6.27.19

06/27/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* A predictable reaction: "President Donald Trump suggested that he wants to delay the U.S. Census following a Supreme Court ruling that the 2020 census form cannot include a question about citizenship."

* Not exactly the outcome many Dems hoped for: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reversed course and will accept a bipartisan $4.6 billion Senate-passed border aid bill, yielding to opposition from the White House, powerful Republicans, and moderates in her own party."

* He walked into court in a jail uniform: "Paul J. Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to mortgage fraud and other charges brought by the Manhattan district attorney in an effort to ensure Mr. Manafort could still face prison time if he is pardoned for his federal crimes."

* At the border: "A union representing federal asylum officers said in a court filing Wednesday that the Trump administration's policy forcing migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases are decided risks violating international treaty obligations and 'abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted.'"

* This one might actually become law: "The House Financial Services Committee unanimously passed a $300 million bill requiring carbon monoxide detectors in public housing Wednesday — a rare Democratic initiative that drew bipartisan support and immediate praise from the Trump administration."

* Is Kevin McAleenan in trouble, too? "Hard-liners inside and outside the Trump administration are pressing for the removal of President Donald Trump's acting Homeland Security secretary amid a rolling leadership purge that began in April and shows no signs of ending, according to five people in the Trump administration and four former Department of Homeland Security officials."

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The front columns at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 5, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Trump's census scheme suffers a major setback at the Supreme Court

06/27/19 01:21PM

We know what the Trump administration did when it added a citizenship question to the 2020 census. We also know why the administration did it and the degree to which officials lied about the rationale behind the scheme.

What we didn't know is whether Donald Trump and his team would get away with it. In a bit of a surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the White House a major setback this morning.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration cannot include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census form that goes to every U.S. household, giving a win to mostly Democratic populous states that said the question would discourage legal and illegal immigrants from responding and make the population count less accurate.

The court was deeply fractured on the issue, but on the section that essentially eliminated the citizenship question, the vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four-member liberal wing of the court.

The full ruling in Department of Commerce v. New York is online here (pdf).

If you read it, you'll notice that this one gets a little messy. Roberts didn't say the citizenship question is improper; rather, he took aim at the Trump administration's motivations and reasoning.

At one point in the decision, for example, the chief justice highlighted the "significant mismatch" between what Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross did "and the rationale he provided." Roberts added that the administration's stated justification was "contrived."

It was a polite way for the Supreme Court's five-member majority to say the Trump administration offered a brazenly dishonest defense.

As Slate's Mark Joseph Stern put it, "Roberts couldn't ignore the mountain of evidence that Ross lied about the reason for a census citizenship question."

That's right, though it suggests four other Supreme Court justices were perfectly comfortable ignoring the mountain of evidence that Ross lied about the reason for a census citizenship question.

Nevertheless, the next obvious question is straightforward: what happens now?

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A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Oct. 5, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Kagan calls Supreme Court's gerrymandering ruling 'tragically wrong'

06/27/19 12:46PM

Voting-rights advocates have been working for years, carefully and methodically, to make a compelling legal case against partisan gerrymandering. Today, those efforts collapsed in the face of a 5-4 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to find that political partisanship was so extreme in drawing the maps for congressional districts in two states that it violated the Constitution. The result was a setback for advocates of political reform.

In separate votes, the court rejected claims that partisan politics played too great a role in the way congressional districts were designed in North Carolina to the benefit of Republicans and in Maryland to the advantage of Democrats.

On a 5-4 vote in the North Carolina case, the justices found that the "partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts." Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that states and Congress could pass laws to prevent politically oriented districts, but asking the courts to do so would be "an unprecedented expansion of judicial power."

The full ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause is online here (pdf.)

Racial gerrymandering is still impermissible, though those protections now appear more limited. As The Atlantic's Adam Serwer noted, "All this means is that when parties discriminate against minorities, they'll say they're being partisan and not racist so they can get away with it."

I've seen some reactions this morning that emphasized that the high court's ruling is good for Republicans, and I suppose that's true. But the larger point should be that the decision is bad for democrats, not Democrats.

Gerrymandering is routinely abused in ways that undermine the health and integrity of the electoral system. That such corruption is generally associated with GOP politics is, in its own way, a legitimate scandal, but today's setback is for those principally concerned with the integrity of the process, not for one party over another.

It's a point Justice Elena Kagan drove home nicely in an unforgiving dissent:

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Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.27.19

06/27/19 12:00PM

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

* Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) may not have qualified for this week's Democratic presidential primary debates, but he's nevertheless finding some success in Iowa, where he received an endorsement yesterday from Story County Democratic Chair Jan Bauer, one of the state's biggest players in party politics. This comes a month after Bullock also received an endorsement from Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller (D).

* Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) raised a few eyebrows yesterday when MSNBC's Kasie Hunt asked if he'd commit to supporting the Democratic 2020 ticket, even if he's not on it, and the Vermont senator hedged.

* Though there's likely to be a Democratic primary in Maine's U.S. Senate race, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon (D) picked up several endorsements this week, including one from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

* Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is working hard to make sure he doesn't face a primary rival in South Carolina next year, and so far, that's working out quite well for him.

* Speaking of GOP primaries, Roy Moore certainly made a splash by kicking off a U.S. Senate campaign in Alabama last week, but he's going to have plenty of intra-party rivals. They'll include Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R), who announced his candidacy on Tuesday.

* Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to officially close the door on running for Kansas' open U.S. Senate seat next year, Politico reports that he's still "quietly evaluating the next steps in his political career."

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Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, and press secretary Hope Hicks watch during a campaign rally on Oct. 14, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Evan Vucci/AP)

Following ethics violation, White House's Conway faces subpoena

06/27/19 11:00AM

The Office of Special Counsel -- not to be confused with Robert Mueller and the special counsel's office -- recently investigated Kellyanne Conway's violations of a federal ethics law called the Hatch Act. The White House aide did not fare well: the OSC determined that Conway is a "repeat offender" of the law who deserves to be fired.

The OSC added in its official report, "Ms. Conway's violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act's restrictions. Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system -- the rule of law."

For House Democrats, this seemed like a development worthy of oversight scrutiny, all of which led to yesterday's subpoena.

The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday approved a subpoena to force White House counselor Kellyanne Conway to appear before the panel as it looks into allegations that she repeatedly violated a federal law that limits political activity by government workers.

Conway did not show up at a hearing Wednesday, after the White House said Monday it would not allow her to appear. The Democratic-led panel voted 25-16 to issue a subpoena.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the only congressional Republican to endorse Donald Trump's impeachment, voted with Democrats in support of the subpoena.

But before House lawmakers voted on the subpoena, they heard from the man who leads the Office of Special Counsel: Henry Kerner, a Trump nominee who was confirmed by the Republican-led Senate in a voice vote.

This went surprisingly poorly.

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Carroll confidantes come forward, discuss assault claim against Trump

06/27/19 10:00AM

It's been nearly a week since E. Jean Carroll, a longtime writer and media figure, went public with her allegation that Donald Trump attacked her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s. The president has denied the claim, arguing, among other things, that his latest accuser isn't his "type."

Definitively proving or disproving Caroll's claim is very difficult: there is no security footage to review and no physical evidence to scrutinize. But the writer explained in her account that she confided in two friends shortly after the alleged incident, telling them at the time what she said occurred.

New York magazine, which originally published Carroll's story as a book excerpt, reported on Friday that it had "verified that Carroll did disclose the attack to these friends at the time," but her confidantes remained unnamed.

This morning, that changed: the New York Times spoke to both of Carroll's friends on the record for its "The Daily" podcast.

On Wednesday, Megan Twohey, a Times reporter, interviewed Ms. Carroll and the two women, Carol Martin and Lisa Birnbach, who had not been publicly identified until now. It was the first time since the alleged assault that the women had discussed it together. [...]

The two women in whom Ms. Carroll confided were well-known figures in the '90s world of New York media. Ms. Martin was a news anchor on WCBS-TV in New York from 1975 to 1995. Ms. Birnbach is a writer best known for "The Official Preppy Handbook," a best seller released in 1981. She has occasionally written for The Times.

The accounts from Birnbach and Martin are not evidence that the attack occurred as Carroll described it. However, their perspectives are strong evidence that Carroll didn't subsequently concoct a story and help make Carroll’s version of events easier to believe. read more

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to U.S. President Donald Trump during the second day of the G7 meeting in Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018.

Trump takes aim at American allies (again) ahead of G-20 summit

06/27/19 09:20AM

As the G-20 summit gets underway in Japan today, Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with leaders from Germany, India, and Japan. Take a wild guess which countries the American president chastised yesterday before landing in Osaka.

President Trump, arriving in Japan on Thursday, opened his latest foreign trip much as he did his last one, lashing out at America's allies, including his hosts, just before sitting down with them to talk through differences on issues like security and trade.

In the hours before and after leaving for an international summit meeting, Mr. Trump assailed Japan, Germany and India. He complained that under existing treaty provisions, if the United States were attacked, Japan would only "watch it on a Sony television." He called Germany a security freeloader and chastised India for raising tariffs on American goods.

Just once I'd like to hear Trump speak of American allies with the respect and deference he extends to North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

The Republican is also expected to have separate meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the international gathering, though both were spared Trump criticisms yesterday.

But what was especially jarring about the American president's rhetoric wasn't just his choice of targets; it was also how little sense his criticisms made.

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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference after the meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2

Trump on Putin talks: 'It's none of your business'

06/27/19 08:40AM

Donald Trump is in Japan for the latest G-20 summit, and a Kremlin official confirmed yesterday that Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with his American counterpart during the gathering. By some accounts, the two are expected to speak "for at least an hour."

And what, pray tell, will the two discuss? As Politico reported, the Republican apparently doesn't want to talk about it.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday his lips are sealed about what he and Russian President Vladimir Putin say to each other behind closed doors.

Ahead of his expected meeting with Putin on the sidelines of this weekend's G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, the president told reporters that while he expected to have a positive conversation with Putin, he would not divulge whether he will press the adversarial leader about election interference.

"I will have a very good conversation with him," Trump said, adding, "What I say to him is none of your business."

In context, the president was speaking specifically to a White House reporter, but the larger problem is that Trump doesn't seem to think his Putin chats are anyone's business.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, ahead of his July 2018 summit with the Russian leader, Trump insisted that the meeting be limited to a one-on-one discussion, with no other U.S. officials, even members of the Trump cabinet, participating. The White House never fully explained why, but the assumption throughout the government was that the Republican would brief U.S. officials on the details of the meeting afterwards.

That didn’t happen. White House officials, military leaders, and even Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats all conceded in the days following the summit that they didn’t fully know what transpired behind closed doors.

It wasn’t an isolated incident. The Washington Post later reported that Trump has “gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations” with the Russian autocrat who attacked our elections in 2016 in order to put the Republican in power – at one point even “talking possession” of his own interpreter’s notes after a conversation with Putin.

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In Democratic debate, presidential hopefuls put substance first

06/27/19 08:00AM

Nearly four years ago, 10 Republican presidential hopefuls gathered for their first primary debate of the cycle, and I spent a little time yesterday afternoon reviewing how it went. The event was worse than I'd remembered.

Donald Trump, for example, spent a little time going after Rosie O'Donnell. Ben Carson complained about "the Alinsky Model, taking advantage of useful idiots." Mike Huckabee talked about taxing "pimps" and ignoring Supreme Court rulings he doesn't like. At one point, Marco Rubio told the audience, "[I]f this election is a resume competition, then Hillary Clinton's going to be the next president" -- which sounded an awful lot like the senator describing the Democrat as the most qualified candidate.

It was a discouraging, largely substance-free display, with candidates peddling obvious falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and cheap insults.

Nearly four years later, 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls gathered for their first primary debate -- the first half of a two-night gathering -- and the differences between the parties was hard to miss. Mother Jones' Tim Murphy's big-picture take was very much in line with my own:

The first Democratic presidential debate didn't focus on electability. There were no questions from NBC's panel of moderators about polling numbers, gaffes, or the tone and rhetoric in Washington. For one night, it was as if President Donald Trump's Twitter account didn't even exist.

Instead, the 10 candidates who took the stage in Miami Wednesday night were peppered with a series of substantive questions about the policy fights that have consumed the party over the last two years. And they seemed perfectly content to talk about those issues.

Quite right. It's exactly how the process of choosing a major-party presidential nominee is supposed to work, with a heavy emphasis on substance, governing priorities, and policy visions.

In fact, perhaps the most contentious moment of the night was a dispute between Julian Castro and Beto O'Rourke, who disagreed over whether and how to implement Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. I'll leave it to others to argue over who "won" the exchange, but let's not miss the forest for the trees: there was a fairly heated exchange between two knowledgeable candidates over the merits of a specific policy provision.

It was emblematic of a serious group of people having a real debate over things that matter. After what Americans have seen from much of the political world of late, it was a refreshing change of pace.

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