One year ago this week, President Obama launched a military offensive against ISIS targets in the Middle East, and announced the U.S. role in leading a coalition against Islamic State militants. A year later, how's the mission going?
Well, that's not exactly an easy question to answer. Vox's Zack Beauchamp, arguably more than most, has emphasized key evidence of progress, most notably the fact that ISIS "has lost almost 10 percent of its territory so far in 2015." The Obama administration's special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, delivered public remarks two weeks ago, arguing that "ISIS is losing" in Iraq and Syria.
On the other hand, the Associated Press reported Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies have apparently reached a very difficult conclusion, at least at this point in the campaign.
...U.S. intelligence agencies see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan. [...]
"We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," a defense official said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group's total strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August, when the airstrikes began.
Of particular interest, however, is the part of the mission in which U.S. officials train moderate Syrian forces to combat ISIS on the ground -- because if the reported "stalemate" isn't discouraging enough, this related aspect is much worse.
Shortly before launching his presidential bid, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivered a speech in which he struck an inclusive tone. The Republican said his experiences have taught him "that if we change the way that we hear each other, if you treat each other with respect, even when we disagree, we can bring people together."
It's an important part of the broader Christie message. He not only routinely blasts President Obama for being "divisive," Christie also pushes the narrative that his unique political skills can have a uniting effect. It's intended to send a subtle reminder to the GOP base: Christie sees himself as a strong general-election contender, with appeals beyond the far-right.
But we're occasionally reminded that Christie's rhetoric about "respect" and "bringing people together" comes with a few questions about the governor's sincerity. Politicoreported yesterday:
Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie said Sunday the national teachers union deserved a punch in the face.
Repeating a line of attack that he has frequently used in New Jersey, the governor told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" that the national teachers union -- presumably, the American Federation of Teachers -- wasn't interested in teaching America's children.
The context, as always, matters. The CNN host said to Christie, "During your first term as governor, you were fond of saying that you can treat bullies in one of two ways -- quote -- 'You can either sidle up to them or you can punch them in the face.' You said, 'I like to punch them in the face.' At the national level, who deserves a punch in the face?"
"The national teachers union," the Republican replied.
So, when Christie tells voters, "We can bring people together," it would appear he's prepared to leave school teachers out of the group hug.
Maureen Dowd caused a bit of a stir over the weekend, noting in her New York Timescolumn that Beau Biden encouraged his father, Vice President Biden, to run for president in 2016, before Beau's recent passing. It's not altogether clear why the piece got so much attention -- the anecdote first came to public light nearly six weeks ago.
What is new, however, is chatter about whether the vice president intends to take his son's advice. NBC News' Perry Bacon Jr. reported over the weekend:
Vice President Biden has not closed the door on a presidential run, according to NBC News sources -- but it is far from clear whether he will enter the 2016 campaign, with much of the Democratic Party already behind Hillary Clinton.
These sources confirmed a New York Times report published Saturday that suggested Biden could still enter the presidential race, and that Biden allies have talked to party activists about the viability of a campaign.
The seriousness of the story varied based on which news organization readers turned to first. The New York Times, for example, said Biden and his associates have "begun to actively explore" a national race, including outreach to Democratic "leaders and donors," who've held conversations "through hushed phone calls and quiet lunches."
The Washington Post, meanwhile, was far more circumspect. Biden is "considering" the presidential race, and he and his team have spoken to encouraging voices, "but there is no indication that he has taken any serious steps toward launching what would be a challenging campaign to deny Hillary Rodham Clinton the Democratic nomination."
Those are two very different reports. Which one better reflects where things stand?
If it takes a brave person to acknowledge what he or she does not know, Scott Walker has courage in abundance.
The Republican governor and presidential candidate was recently asked, for example, whether sexual orientation is a choice. "To me, that's, I don't know," Walker replied. "I don't know the answer to that question." Similarly, the far-right Wisconsinite isn't sure if President Obama loves the United States -- he told the AP in February, "I don't know" -- or even whether he believes modern biology.
In February, Walker was asked whether he believes President Obama is a Christian. "I don't know," the GOP governor replied. Over the weekend, he was asked again, and as the Washington Postreported, Walker is still uncertain.
Fielding questions at the Koch network's donor summit here Saturday night, the Republican presidential candidate reiterated the controversial position of uncertainty that he staked out in February.
"You're not going to get a different answer than I said before," the Wisconsin governor said. "I don't know. I presume he is.... But I've never asked him about that. As someone who is a believer myself, I don't presume to know someone's beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not unless I've actually talked with them."
Walker did add that the president claims to be a Christian, and the governor is willing to "take him at his word." How gracious of him.
By Walker's reasoning, every presidential candidate's faith should be suspect, no matter how sincere, unless and until the Republican candidate has "actually talked with them" about matters of religion. As best as I can tell, Walker hasn't been asked about Jeb Bush's or Donald Trump's faith, but if he's consistent, he doesn't know whether to believe their professed Christianity, either.
Of course, if we take this a step further, should American voters be equally skeptical about Walker's faith? What's to stop Christian voters from hearing the governor claim to be a Christian, only to react by saying, "I presume he's a Christian, but I've never asked him about that. As someone who is a believer myself, I don't presume to know someone's beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not unless I've actually talked with them"?
When we last looked at the 2016 presidential campaign and the candidates' coffers, the White House hopefuls had just reported their official fundraising tallies. Friday night, however, was the deadline for the affiliated super PACs to submit their reports to the Federal Election Commission, giving a more complete picture of where the race stands, at least financially.
And at this point, one thing is abundantly clear: my oh my are most of the candidates dependent on super PACs and other outside, ostensibly "independent" entities. The New York Timesreported over the weekend:
The Republican presidential candidates are almost uniformly relying on these groups, which can tap unlimited corporate and individual contributions, to amass the financial firepower they need to break through a crowded field. This is a stark departure from past campaigns, and has made most of the candidates deeply reliant on a handful of ultra-wealthy donors.
So far this year, for every dollar raised by a presidential candidate, more than four dollars has gone to a super PAC.
To help drive the point home, I've updated last month's chart to show how the most competitive candidates are doing, omitting candidates who've raised less than $5 million.
Note, the lighter colors -- red for Republicans, blue for Democrats -- show how much money the candidates have raised through their actual campaigns, while the darker colors show how much has been raised by the candidates' allied entities.
When you drink your morning coffee or sit down to dinner, are you ever aware of the sounds around you? Not just the sounds of your environment, but the sounds of your actual food? You should be.
It turns out that sound can affect our perception of flavor and alter our eating experiences more than you might think. Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley of the Gastropod podcast looked into this in one of their recent episodes. They explore the effects of the crunch of your potato chip and the splash of water in a glass.
First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected story out of Illinois, where a notable evangelical college was faced with a fairly simple choice regarding health care, but where school officials nevertheless made an inexplicable decision.
Taking a firm stand against Obamacare's controversial contraception mandate, Wheaton College on Friday will stop providing any health insurance for students.
The decision, announced to students July 10, will halt health care coverage for about a quarter of the college's 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students, forcing them to shop for other plans just weeks before their coverage ends.
Now, it's easy to get the basics of this story wrong. This is not, for example, a controversy in which Wheaton College had to choose between offering health benefits and providing contraception, or perhaps being forced to offer coverage that includes access to birth control, which the religious institution didn't want to subsidize. Stories like these have come up, but that dynamic doesn't apply here.
Wheaton faced a very different kind of choice. Under the Affordable Care Act, the evangelical college could claim a religious exemption to the contraception policy, at which point a private insurer would create a separate policy to cover contraception, directly for the consumer. Wheaton wouldn't have to subsidize this separate plan at all.
The college said this accommodation isn't good enough -- even claiming a religious exemption, it said, is a burden. It's preferable, Wheaton administrators concluded, to simply impose a last-minute change that scraps student health plans altogether.
Paul Chelsen, Wheaton's vice president of student development, said the move to cut off students' health security "breaks my heart," but he's doing it anyway. The controversy, he said, is "bigger than student health insurance." Chelsen added, "I acknowledge that students have been hurt by this decision and I regret that."
Wheaton is currently litigating the issue in federal courts. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently denied the school's request for a preliminary injunction against the ACA policy while its case proceeds. Doing some simple, two-page paperwork to claim a religious exemption, the court concluded, "is hardly a burdensome requirement."
One student told the Chicago Tribune, "I fear the administration is putting petty politics above caring for students."
Frederick Williams plies his well-honed news-watching skills to the task of answering questions about the stories covered on this week's The Rachel Maddow Show, for a chance to win stuff from around the office that we don't need anymore. watch
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, talks with Rachel Maddow about presidential candidates addressing his organization today and the influence of urban and African-American voters and the Black Lives Matter movement on American politics. watch
* Syria: "Syrian rebels, recently trained by the U.S. military, came under heavy fire Friday in northern Syria and for the first time called in U.S. airstrikes to repel the enemy. U.S. military officials tell NBC News the Free Syrian forces were attacked Friday morning by about 50 al Nusra fighters. Under siege, the Syrian moderates issued a desperate plea to the U.S. military."
* West Bank firebombing: "A Palestinian toddler was burned to death and his 4-year-old brother and parents were critically injured early Friday morning in an arson attack on their home in the West Bank. Witnesses and officials attributed the attack to Jewish extremists because of Hebrew graffiti sprayed nearby. 'Revenge!' was written on one wall, next to a Star of David."
* Also in Israel: "Six people were stabbed at Jerusalem's annual Gay Pride Parade on Thursday. The suspected attacker was identified as Yishai Schlissel, the same man behind the attack on the 2005 parade, recently released from prison."
* Ebola: "Merck & Co.'s vaccine for Ebola is "highly effective," according to an interim analysis from a panel of experts who recommended that a late-stage trial should continue. The vaccine was 100 percent effective when it was tested on more than 4,000 people who were in close contact with Ebola patients in the African nation of Guinea, the World Health Organization said, citing a study published today in the Lancet medical journal."
* South Carolina: "A federal judge entered not guilty pleas Friday on charges against Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man accused of killing nine African-American parishioners at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month."
* Ohio: "A grand jury has decided to not indict additional Cincinnati police officers involved in the investigation into the death of an unarmed black man who was shot in the head during a routine traffic stop earlier this month, Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters announced Friday."
* ISIS: "After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded."
* DOJ: "Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday that the agency is starting a pilot program that will give a limited number of eligible incarcerated students the opportunity to receive federal funding for obtaining a bachelor's or professional degree."
Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee caused quite a stir this week with repulsive Holocaust rhetoric, which the former Arkansas governor probably saw as a vehicle to a poll bump, despite rebukes from Israeli officials and domestic Jewish groups.
But as that controversy fades, the GOP candidate needs another ridiculous remark to keep his name in the headlines. This ought to do the trick.
GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is open to the idea of using federal troops and the FBI to stop women from having abortions.
"I will not pretend there is nothing we can do to stop this," Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and an outspoken social conservative, said Thursday at a campaign stop in Jefferson, Iowa.
According to the Huffington Post's piece, Huckabee proceeded to attend another event in Iowa, where he was asked whether he'd seriously consider using federal troops or FBI agents to prevent abortions.
"We'll see if I get to be president," the Republican said, adding, "All American citizens should be protected."
The Constitution guarantees the rights of citizenship to "all persons born" in the United States. Huckabee, however, seems to believe "citizens" also includes fetuses.
In case it's not obvious, the far-right Republican is describing a deliberate constitutional crisis.
It's been a week since the New York Times published its mistaken story on Hillary Clinton's emails, which has since been corrected multiple times, and has quickly entered the canon of How Not To Cover A Presidential Candidate. The questions for the newspaper, however, linger.
Overnight, the Clinton campaign published a lengthy, 1,900-word letter from Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri to the paper's executive editor, Dean Baquet, fleshing out the campaign's concerns about the Times' mistake, and questioning the paper's "profoundly unsettling" explanation for how the article was published in the first place.
For its part, the Times has repeatedly said over the last week that it got the story wrong because its reporters were given wrong information. I'm not unsympathetic to the defense -- this has admittedly happened to me, too -- but it does raise questions as to who, exactly, the Times relied on for the bogus information.
"In our conversations with the Times reporters, it was clear that they had not personally reviewed the IG's referral that they falsely described as both criminal and focused on Hillary Clinton. Instead, they relied on unnamed sources that characterized the referral as such. However, it is not at all clear that those sources had directly seen the referral, either. This should have represented too many "degrees of separation" for any newspaper to consider it reliable sourcing, least of all The New York Times.
"Times' editors have attempted to explain these errors by claiming the fault for the misreporting resided with a Justice Department official whom other news outlets cited as confirming the Times' report after the fact. This suggestion does not add up. It is our understanding that this Justice Department official was not the original source of the Times' tip....This raises the question of what other sources the Times may have relied on for its initial report."
This is more than just a little whodunit for Beltway insiders and the political media. The answer matters quite a bit.
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