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This Week in God, 4.15.17

04/15/17 08:31AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a report out of Alabama, where the state Senate voted 24 to 4 to allow a church "to form its own police force."

Across the country, every house of worship is already entitled to the law-enforcement protections, but Alabama's Briarwood Presbyterian Church, with a congregation of more than 4,000 people, believes it's grown to such a size that it warrants special protection of its own. Under the legislation, the church would be empowered to "appoint and employ one or more persons to act as police officers to protect the safety and integrity of the church and its ministries."

There doesn't appear to be any precedent in the American tradition of a state empowering a church to appoint its own officers of the law, and as the New York Times noted this week, such an approach would raise profound legal questions in a country that's supposed to separate church and state.
The American Civil Liberties Union objected to this year's bill in a memo warning legislators that the measure would "unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations."

It also said the law would violate the First Amendment, which states that Congress cannot make any law "respecting an establishment of religion."

"What this bill would do is to grant to a church -- a religious organization -- what is quintessentially governmental police power," Randall C. Marshall, legal director of the A.C.L.U. of Alabama, said in a phone interview. "It would include the power of arrest, the power to use varying levels of force, and the discretion to decide which laws to enforce -- or which laws not to enforce."
The bill is scheduled to be considered in Alabama's state House as early as next week. If it passes, the measure would go to the state's new governor, Republican Kay Ivey, who was elevated to the post this week following Robert Bentley's decision to resign in disgrace in the wake of sex/corruption scandal.

Also from the God Machine this week:
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Friday's Mini-Report, 4.14.17

04/14/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* There's been no real explanation for why this bomb was dropped on this target when it was: "Thirty feet in length, weighing 21,000 lbs and creating a mushroom cloud seen up to 20 miles away, the 'mother of all bombs' was unleashed by the United States in Afghanistan."

* Tax Day Marches: "Large protests are expected Saturday across the country pegged to Tax Day to pressure President Donald Trump to release his tax returns. This year's Tax Day Marches on Saturday, planned in dozens of cities across the county, are expected to be the biggest political mass mobilization since January's Women's March, which some believe was the largest mass political mobilization ever recorded."

* Somalia: "The U.S. military is sending dozens of regular troops to Somalia in the largest such deployment to the Horn of Africa country in roughly two decades. The United States pulled out of Somalia after 1993, when two helicopters were shot down in the capital, Mogadishu, and bodies of Americans were dragged through the streets."

* In case you missed last night's segment on Arkansas: "Starting next week, Arkansas will attempt something that's never been done in the U.S.: execute seven death row inmates in a single state over the span of 11 days."

* In related news: "An 11th-hour addition to the ongoing federal court hearing aimed at stopping seven executions scheduled over a 240-hour period beginning at 7 p.m. Monday was an intervention by two drug companies objecting to use of drugs they make."

* That's quite a paragraph: "So much of this is new to Mr. Trump that only after he publicly accused Mr. Obama of having wiretapped his telephones last year did he ask aides how the system of obtaining eavesdropping warrants from a special foreign intelligence court worked."
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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he walks offstage after delivering a campaign speech about national security in Manchester

Keeping visitor logs secret, Trump acts like he has something to hide

04/14/17 04:24PM

The transparency surrounding the White House visitor logs during the Obama administration was far from perfect, but it was nevertheless a breakthrough in transparency. From 2010 through 2016, the Obama White House voluntarily disclosed the names of millions of visitors, publishing the information online for anyone to see.

On Inauguration Day 2017, the conservative Washington Times said that the Trump administration was poised to "keep releasing the records of those who visit the White House, continuing an Obama administration transparency policy that gave Americans an unprecedented look at the comings and goings through the powerful complex."

Three months later, Team Trump -- which waited until the afternoon of Good Friday, ahead of a holiday weekend, to make the announcement -- decided to scrap the Obama-era transparency.
The White House will keep most of its visitor logs secret, a senior administration official confirmed to NBC News Friday.

The decision comes after months of questions about the fate of the Obama-era precedent of releasing White House visitor logs and marks another stark contrast between the administrations. The Obama administration voluntarily disclosed more than 6 million records during his years in office.
The White House issued a statement saying the decision was necessary in light of "the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually." How would transparency worsen "national security risks"? No one knows; the White House didn't say. In fact, there's no evidence that the Obama-era policy undermined security in any way.

It's worth emphasizing that the Trump White House's logs won't be shrouded in complete secrecy. A Washington Post report added that the Trump administration intends to release information under limited circumstances: "when Freedom of Information Act requests are filed for those visiting offices of the White House classified under the law as separate agencies, such as the Office of Management and Budget."

The White House website that existed in the Obama era to show the public the visitor logs will be scrapped altogether.
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In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Trump-era damage to the EPA appears increasingly brutal

04/14/17 12:52PM

It's been a difficult year thus far for the Environmental Protection Agency. Consider the developments from just the last couple of weeks.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump's controversial far-right choice to lead the agency, decided two weeks ago to side with Dow Chemical -- against the advice of the EPA's researchers -- on the use of an insecticide. The next day, the EPA's scientific integrity office said it was reviewing whether Pruitt violated agency policies when he publicly questioned the role of carbon pollution in climate change.

Five days later, EPA officials proposed eliminating "two programs focused on limiting children's exposure to lead-based paint." The day after that, Trump's EPA issued a press statement praising the Energy Star efficiency program that the Trump administration intends to scrap.

And yesterday, Scott Pruitt traveled to western Pennsylvania to describe his regressive vision for the EPA at a coal mine. The New Republic's Emily Atkin explained that the EPA chief specifically chose the Harvey Mine, which opened in 2014 as part of the Bailey Mine Complex, owned by the 153-year-old energy company Consol Energy.
Pruitt might point to the Harvey mine as evidence of coal mining's bright future. But a closer look at the Bailey complex shows it's hardly a shining example of profitable, environmentally friendly coal mining. Last year, the EPA and the Department of Justice fined Consol $3 million for discharging contaminated wastewater from the Bailey complex into tributaries of the Ohio River, which provides drinking water for approximately 3 million people. In addition, all three mines in the complex have racked up millions of dollars in Mine Safety and Health Administration violations. [...]

Granted, it would be a challenge to find an American mining operation that hasn't broken environmental laws or struggled financially over its lifetime. But Harvey Mine is a bad symbolic choice for yet another reason: It's owned by a company that wants to get out of the coal mining business altogether.
Oddly enough, Pruitt didn't mention any of this.
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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.14.17

04/14/17 12:00PM

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

* Iowa's Republican-run legislature has approved a new voter-ID law, despite no evidence of  voter impersonation in the state. The Nation's Ari Berman reported, "The ACLU of Iowa reports that 11 percent of eligible Iowa voters—260,000 people—don't have a driver's license or non-operator ID, according to the US Census and the Iowa Department of Transportation, and could be disenfranchised by the bill."

* On a related note, Iowa's legislation now heads to Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who's likely to sign it, though it doesn't include a provision he likes: the Republican governor wants to see polls close earlier so people wouldn't have to "wait up so late to see what the election results are."

* In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) has decided not to run for a third term. For Republicans, that's not necessarily good news: the Connecticut GOP saw the governor as highly vulnerable in 2018.

* In Montana's congressional special election, Rob Quist (D) was asked yesterday if national Democrats are likely to come to the state to give him a hand. "I don't think that would necessarily work in my favor," Quist said, adding, "I think we got this." The election, which national Republicans are starting to take very seriously, is on May 25.

* In Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam's (D) relatively recent embrace of Democratic politics continues to be a point of contention. He acknowledges having voted for George W. Bush, and Politico reported yesterday, "Northam says he can't remember whether he backed Democrats in any governor or Senate races."

* In Illinois last week, Democrats won several local races where Republicans traditionally dominate.

* In 2018 Senate races, Republicans have all kinds of built-in structural advantages, but in light of Trump's unpopularity, the party is struggling with recruiting top-tier contenders.
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Image: US President Donald J. Trump holds press conference

Aiming high, Trump hopes to eliminate world fears

04/14/17 11:10AM

Donald Trump hosted a White House event this week with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and the U.S. president offered some amazing insights into his views on international affairs. The joint press conference made headlines because Trump abandoned his stated belief that NATO is "obsolete," but there were some other notable remarks.

Asked about North Korea, for example, Trump said he hoped to get Chinese cooperation, but he doesn't see it as absolutely necessary. "[O]therwise we're just going to go it alone," Trump explained. "That will be all right, too. But going it alone means going it with lots of other nations."

I haven't the foggiest idea what that means. "Alone" isn't a generally a word with subtle nuances.

Nevertheless, later in the press conference, the president had an even more amazing answer when asked what he believes European countries have to fear from Russia if current tensions continue to escalate? Trump replied:
"Well, I want to just start by saying hopefully they're going to have to fear nothing, ultimately. Right now there is a fear, and there are problems -- there are certainly problems. But ultimately, I hope that there won't be a fear and there won't be problems, and the world can get along. That would be the ideal situation.

"It's crazy what's going on -- whether it's the Middle East or you look at -- no matter where the -- Ukraine -- you look at -- whatever you look at, it's got problems, so many problems. And ultimately, I believe that we are going to get rid of most of those problems, and there won't be fear of anybody. That's the way it should be."
The Washington Post had an interesting piece today, referencing this Trump answer, and noting the political psychology behind it. Barack Obama tried to remind people there's never been a better time to be alive, while Donald Trump insists the world is unraveling, falling apart at the seams before our very eyes.
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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks past the guns of the USS Iowa after speaking on the battleship in San Pedro, Los Angeles, Calif., United States Sept. 15, 2015. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Trump's praise for the military comes with a caveat

04/14/17 10:32AM

Fourteen years ago this month, soon after the U.S. military had brought down Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, Al Franken ran into Paul Wolfowitz at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. There's no recording of the exchange, but according to reports at the time, the comedian, several years before his Senate career, told the deputy defense secretary, "Clinton's military did pretty well in Iraq, huh?"

As legend has it, Wolfowitz "responded by proposing that Franken perform an anatomically impossible act."

Franken's point, of course, is that George W. Bush may have complained quite a bit on the campaign trail about the strength of the U.S. military in 2000, but after taking office, the Bush/Cheney administration quickly discovered that the armed forces it inherited from the Clinton administration was plenty strong, indeed.

The anecdote came to mind this week listening to Trump talk about the state of the U.S. military. Note, for example, this exchange between the president and Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo on Wednesday, when Trump described the scene in which he told Chinese President Xi Jinping about the U.S. strike last week in Syria.
TRUMP: I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We're now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do? And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way. And I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you. This was during dessert. We've just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.

BARTIROMO: Unmanned? Brilliant.

TRUMP: It's so incredible. It's brilliant. It's genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five. I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing. Now we're going to start getting it, because, you know, the military has been cut back and depleted so badly by the past administration....
You could almost see the president make the realization that the praise for the state of the military might be a political problem, because he's spent a year and a half telling Americans that Obama left the military in shambles. The rhetoric was a lie, which in turn leaves Trump in a jam: how can he celebrate the might of our military without discrediting his own talking points?
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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Orders Regarding Trade

The presidential learning curve remains steep for Donald Trump

04/14/17 09:30AM

One of Donald Trump's most important early flip-flops came just 11 days into his presidency. As a candidate, Trump broke with Republican Party orthodoxy and endorsed lowering prices on prescription drugs by using Medicare's negotiating power. That, however, did not last.

On Jan. 31, after a meeting with executives and lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry, Trump denounced the idea he used to support, calling it a form of "price fixing" that would hurt "smaller, younger companies." Trump had one set of beliefs, he heard conflicting information, so he adopted a different set of beliefs.

The Wall Street Journal noted a similar shift this week on the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump was skeptical of Ex-Im Bank, which funds U.S. trade deals, calling it "unnecessary." The bank has been a target of Republican criticism, which Mr. Trump seized on.

But that view changed earlier this year after he talked to Boeing Co. CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who explained to him what role the bank plays, according to people familiar with the matter.
Explaining his new position, Trump told the Wall Street Journal this week that he "was very much opposed" to the Export-Import Bank, but "it turns out [that] lots of small companies will really be helped."

There's been quite a bit of discussion this week about Trump's many 180-degree turns and what the reversals tell us about his presidency. There's been commentary about Trump "moderating," "pivoting," becoming more "conventional," and choosing sides between the competing factions in his West Wing.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer went so far yesterday as to argue that Trump isn't really flip-flopping, so much as the issues are "evolving towards the president's position." In other words, Trump isn't changing; the world is.

That's obviously foolish, but even putting Spicer's nonsense aside, it seems much of the political world is over-thinking this. Consider the importance of the key phrase in Trump's Ex-Im Bank explanation: "it turns out."
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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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