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The sun rises behind the steeple of a church, Aug. 23, 2015, in Plains, Ga. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)

This Week in God, 7.21.18

07/21/18 08:00AM

First up from the God Machine this week is the latest effort from congressional Republicans to empower houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking without fear of consequence. Politico  reported the other day:

The House voted Thursday to make it harder for the government to punish churches that get involved in politics.

In a 217-199 vote, lawmakers approved legislation barring the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that back political candidates, unless it is specifically approved by the commissioner of the agency.

The provision, buried in a budget measure setting IRS funding for the upcoming year, amounts to a backdoor way around the so-called Johnson amendment, a half-century-old prohibition on nonprofits getting involved in political campaign activities.

The House vote came just three days after the Trump administration made it easier for dark-money entities to keep their largest donors hidden from public scrutiny.

To be sure, Republicans have spent much of the last year and a half targeting the Johnson amendment through a variety of vehicles -- it was nearly included in the GOP's massive tax-cut package late last year -- but those efforts involved trying to rewrite the relevant portion of the tax code.

This latest measure takes a different approach, leaving the letter of the law in place, but neutering the policy by making it vastly more difficult for the Internal Revenue Service to impose penalties that deter religious leaders from breaking the law.

And as of Thursday, a majority of the House signed off on the change, voting to create a system in which churches and other ministries could engage in partisan politicking, confident in the knowledge that their tax-exempt status would likely be left alone.

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“I am not the candidate named in the indictment. We found out about the compromising of Ashford’s documents at the same time as everyone else, through the media. My supporters and I worked tirelessly in 2016, knocking on over 122,500 doors and speaking to the people of the Second District.”
Why Trump's legal team would leak Cohen playmate hush money tape

Why Trump's legal team would leak Cohen playmate hush money tape

07/20/18 09:04PM

Rachel Maddow shares breaking news from Vanity Fair that the audio recording of Donald Trump talking with Michael Cohen about payments to Playboy model Karen McDougal, as reported by the New York Times, was designated as privileged by the special master in the case. News of the tape appears to have come from the Trump legal team. Rachel Maddow... watch

Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., speaks during the House Democrats' news conference at the Capitol on Thursday, April 14, 2016.

Hacked Rep. Ashford: 'Why Was There No Call to Action' from DCCC?

07/20/18 08:26PM

Former Democratic Congressman Brad Ashford (D-Neb.) is now raising questions about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s response to the Russian hacking of his campaign. In conversations with The Rachel Maddow Show, Ashford questioned the DCCC's strategy in the first known case of a congressional candidate informed of compromised campaign material.

Last Friday's indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office of 12 Russian nationals for hacking into national Democrats' campaign operations, including the DCCC and DNC, identified a candidate for U.S. Congress asking the Russian hackers known as Guccifer 2.0 for information from their unauthorized access to DCCC files. Ashford shortly thereafter released a statement on Facebook where he "reveal[ed] that my #Ne02 Congressional emails were hacked by Russian agents in 2016."

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Friday's Mini-Report, 7.20.18

07/20/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Ohio State: "More than 100 former Ohio State University students have reported being victims of sexual misconduct by a former school physician over two decades ago, a university spokesman said Friday."

* Israel: "The conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated in Gaza on Friday after a Palestinian sniper killed an Israeli soldier along the border fence and Israel responded with what its military described as 'a wide-scale attack' against Hamas military targets."

* GOP senators caved to the White House (again): "Republicans have agreed to water down legislation designed to punish Chinese telecom company ZTE, delivering a victory to President Donald Trump, according to a person close to negotiations in Congress."

* Trade war: "President Donald Trump has indicated that he is willing to slap tariffs on every Chinese good imported to the U.S. should the need arise. 'I'm ready to go to 500,' the president told CNBC's Joe Kernen in a 'Squawk Box' interview aired Friday."

* Rod Rosenstein's announcement from late yesterday: "The Justice Department plans to alert the public to foreign operations targeting U.S. democracy under a new policy designed to counter hacking and disinformation campaigns such as the one Russia undertook in 2016 to disrupt the presidential election."

* Bill Shine, Donald Trump's new White House communications chief, was subpoenaed last year "by a federal grand jury in New York as part of a criminal investigation into Fox News's handling of sexual harassment complaints, according to a document viewed by The New York Times."

* "Expedited" doesn't sound encouraging: "The Interior Department has commissioned an expedited environmental review of the impact of leasing part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling, according to a document released under the Freedom of Information Act."

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

McConnell's Supreme Court ultimatum may not be as scary as he thinks

07/20/18 03:41PM

As things stand, Senate Democrats continue to make expansive requests for documents from Judge Brett Kavanaugh's background before his Supreme Court nomination can continue, and Senate Republicans continue to complain that Dems are being unreasonable.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) thinks he has the upper hand: Politico  reports that the GOP leader's latest plan is to tell Democrats he'll push the confirmation vote until the fall unless they back off their document requests.

Delaying the vote past September would serve a dual purpose for McConnell, keeping vulnerable red-state Democrats off the campaign trail while potentially forcing anti-Kavanaugh liberals to swallow a demoralizing defeat just ahead of the midterms. Senators said McConnell believes the Democratic base will be "deflated" if they raise hopes of defeating Kavanaugh only to lose just days before the election. [...]

"We're witnessing historic obstructionism here," Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said of Democratic resistance to Trump's judicial picks....

For now, let's put aside the question of why Senate Republicans are so concerned about limiting transparency on Kavanaugh's background. Let's also look past the fact that Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) shouldn't make silly complaints about "historic obstructionism" after what he and his colleagues did to Merrick Garland two years ago.

Instead, let's consider the strategy on its merits, because at face value, there's some logic to what McConnell is saying. The Senate is rarely in session in October of an election year because incumbents up for re-election want to be in their home states campaigning. With so many red-state Democratic incumbents facing tough races this fall, it's likely they'd rather be on the trail than on Capitol Hill.

Republicans are also under the impression that if Kavanaugh ends up being confirmed anyway, it would have a demoralizing effect on Democratic morale right before Election Day.

But there's a flipside to this.

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Image: FBI Investigates Trump's attorney Michael Cohen

Cohen recorded chat with Trump about possible pre-election payoff

07/20/18 12:49PM

The issue of secret recordings of Donald Trump's conversations has lingered for a while. For example, it was in May 2017 that the president first seemed to threaten former FBI Director James Comey, publishing a tweet that said Comey "better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations."

We later learned that no such tapes exist -- the president occasionally says ridiculous things with no basis in fact -- though it's a subject with a rich history. After all, Trump has a lengthy track record of recording communications – at Trump Tower, at various other Trump-owned properties, and elsewhere.

Perhaps Trump's personal fixer learned a thing or two from his boss. The New York Times  reports today:

President Trump's longtime lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, secretly recorded a conversation with Mr. Trump two months before the presidential election in which they discussed payments to a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump, according to lawyers and others familiar with the recording.

The F.B.I. seized the recording this year during a raid on Mr. Cohen's office. The Justice Department is investigating Mr. Cohen's involvement in paying women to tamp down embarrassing news stories about Mr. Trump ahead of the 2016 election. Prosecutors want to know whether that violated federal campaign finance laws, and any conversation with Mr. Trump about those payments would be of keen interest to them.

Rudy Giuliani confirmed to the NYT that there is a tape of Trump talking to Cohen, but the former mayor said the recording isn't incriminating.

Then again, Giuliani says a lot of things.

So, how big a deal is this? There's a fair amount to unpack here.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.20.18

07/20/18 12:00PM

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

* He retweeted this same message this morning for no apparent reason: "President Trump on Thursday tweeted a partial clip of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arguing eight years ago that a "strong Russia" is in the world's best interest.... The clip is from a 2010 interview Clinton did with First Channel Television, which is partially owned by the Russian government."

* Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) said yesterday he won't apologize for using misogynistic language during his time as a radio host because, as the Republican congressman put it, he was "paid to be provocative."

* In New Jersey, Republican Senate hopeful Bob Hugin "fought efforts to open Princeton University's famed all-male eating clubs to women, going so far as to call the ultimately successful attempt 'politically correct fascism.'" Reminded of his previous position, Hugin yesterday said, "If I could go back in time, I would not use those words. It was a mistake and I take responsibility for that."

* Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), an ambitious House Democrat, has become the latest lawmaker to argue that marijuana should be legal nationwide.

* With less a month remaining before Wisconsin's statewide primaries, a new Marquette Law School poll shows Kevin Nicholson and Leah Vukmir effectively tied in the Republicans' Senate primary, though about a third of GOP voters are still undecided.

* The same poll found Tony Evers, the superintendent of Wisconsin's public schools, as the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate in a multi-candidate field. Primary Day is Aug. 14.

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A person man uses a laptop. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/AP)

Key cyber-security officials leave the Trump admin at a difficult time

07/20/18 11:21AM

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has made no secret of his concerns about cyber-security threats. In fact, the nation's top intelligence officer raised more than a few eyebrows last week when he said in the months leading up to 9/11, the "system was blinking red," adding, "Here we are, nearly two decades later, and I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again."

It's against this backdrop that the Wall Street Journal  reports on some important departures from the Trump administration.

Three of the top cybersecurity officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation are retiring from government service, according to people familiar with the matter -- departures that come as cyberattacks are a major concern for the country's security agencies.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials warn that the country is at a "critical point" facing unprecedented cyberthreats, including Russia's ongoing attacks on the American political system. The retirements also come as the FBI is facing regular criticism from President Donald Trump and his supporters, and is working to attract and retain top cyber talent.

The WSJ  noted that Scott Smith, who runs the FBI cyber division, is leaving this month, and his deputy, Howard Marshall, has already moved on. Their supervisor, David Resch, is also stepping down.

They're joined by Carl Ghattas, executive assistant director of the FBI's national security branch, who's also leaving, following Jeffrey Tricoli, "a senior FBI cyber agent who oversaw a Bureau task force addressing Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections," out the door.

According to Politico, Tricoli was replaced by someone who "knows absolutely nothing about cyber."

Of course, all of this follows Donald Trump's decision in May to eliminate the job of the nation's cyber-security czar, as part of John Bolton's reorganization of the National Security Council.

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Federal Reserve To Announce Policy Decisions After One-Day Meeting

Trump changes his mind about the Fed and low interest rates

07/20/18 10:44AM

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has only been on the job for five months, but in that time, he's twice raised interest rates, and appears likely to raise them again before the end of the year.

Evidently, the president who appointed Powell to the post isn't altogether pleased with the developments.

President Donald Trump attacked the Federal Reserve on Thursday, saying he disagreed with the course taken by the central bank and its chairman, Jerome Powell, whom Trump nominated to the position last year.

"I don't necessarily agree with it," Trump told CNBC about the Fed's two rate hikes so far this year. "I'm not thrilled, because every time we go up, they want to raise rates again. But at the same time I'm letting them do what they feel is best."

The comments caused a stir in financial circles, largely because presidents are supposed to keep their distance from the Federal Reserve's decisions, respecting the institution's independence.

Trump, however, doesn't seem overly concerned with these norms -- you're shocked, I know -- and he published some related tweets this morning complaining about rising interest rates.

What I find amazing about this, though, isn't the president's indifference toward contemporary American traditions and institutional constraints. Rather, what interests me is the dramatic evolution of Trump's thinking on the subject.

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About The Rachel Maddow Show

Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.

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