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Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist Dallas Church Choir speaks as he introduces President Donald Trump during the Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, Saturday, July 1, 2017.

Trump taps right-wing pastor for US embassy event in Jerusalem

05/14/18 08:00AM

There was already considerable controversy surrounding Donald Trump's decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Palestinians have long opposed the move, and the American president's willingness to ignore their concerns have made peace talks that much more difficult.

Complicating matters, there will be an event in Jerusalem today to mark the opening of the new U.S. facility, and the opening prayer at the ceremony will be delivered by a right-wing Texas pastor with an ugly rhetorical record. In some circles, this isn't going over well.

Former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney lashed out at the decision to have a controversial evangelical leader give a blessing at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem Monday, calling him a "religious bigot."

The Senate candidate from Utah criticized the inclusion of the Rev. Robert Jeffress -- the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas who is also an adviser to President Donald Trump.

There are two key angles to the story. The first is that Jeffress appears to support the relocation of the embassy as part of a fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy. For the White House to extend an invitation to the right-wing pastor, providing him with a prominent role in today's ceremony, signals at least tacit support for this theological vision.

The second is that Romney is hardly Jeffress' only critic.

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Franklin Graham appears on NBC News' "Today" show. (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/Getty)

This Week in God, 5.12.18

05/12/18 07:15AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a prominent religious leader who appears to have competing moral standards for presidents, depending on which party they belong to.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, a prominent Donald Trump supporter, told the Associated Press this week that he's aware of the scandals surrounding the president, including the Stormy Daniels story, but he's unconcerned.

"...I don't have concern, in a sense, because these things happened many years ago -- and there's such bigger problems in front of us as a nation that we need to be dealing with than other things in his life a long time ago. I think some of these things -- that's for him and his wife to deal with. I think when the country went after President Clinton, the Republicans, that was a great mistake that should never have happened. And I think this thing with Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody's business. And we've got other business at hand that we need to deal with."

The references to the Clinton impeachment scandal was of particular interest, because Graham's current belief that the campaign to tear him down "was a great mistake that should never have happened" appears to be a recent revelation.

In fact, in August 1998, Graham wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he presented a very different message. Rather than dismissing the personal allegations as something "for him and his wife to deal with," Graham argued at the time that allegations such as these were very much the public's business. "[T]he God of the Bible says that what one does in private does matter," he wrote.

Graham added, in reference to the then-Democratic president, "If he will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?"

And yet, here we are, nearly 20 years later, watching Graham's ally in the Oval Office confront a sex scandal, and wouldn't you know it, he appears to have had a change of heart. Now, evidently, the "thing with Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody's business."

In the Associated Press interview, Graham added, "This isn't behavior that has taken place since he's been president. These things happened long before he became president. That doesn't make it right. And I don't defend those kinds of relationships he had. But the country knew the kind of person he was back then, and they still made the decision to make him the president of the United States."

And that's likely what much of the religious right and other socially conservative evangelicals tell themselves: Americans knew all about Trump's lax standards, and so long as one overlooks the fact that he received fewer votes and relied on the intervention of a foreign adversary, Trump nevertheless became president. And so, bygones.

The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne had a column this week exploring whether hypocrisy from conservative elites is driving the public away from religious institutions. I'm left to wonder whether Franklin Graham read it.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 5.11.18

05/11/18 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Unexpected: "The investigation of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and the domestic-violence scandal that toppled former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman collided Friday when a colorful attorney not representing either man asked that certain court records be sealed."

* Necessary scrutiny: "A day after Gina Haspel, President Trump's nominee to lead the C.I.A., refused during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday to condemn the agency's torture of Qaeda suspects, several lawmakers and human-rights advocates said aspects of her testimony merited greater scrutiny."

* Middle East: "Iran's supreme leader revealed on Wednesday an unpublicized letter sent recently by President Trump to countries in the Middle East, raising questions about how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came to know about private correspondence between the U.S. leader and his allies in the region."

* Sign of the times: "Michigan Republicans' plan to require some recipients of government health insurance to work would disproportionately affect black people, a Washington Post analysis of new data from state health officials reveals."

* Maybe Rudy should've kept a lower public profile: "President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, abruptly resigned from his law firm, which then promptly undercut his recent statements defending the president."

* Taking the whole "strange bedfellows" dynamic in a new direction: "[T]he United States military is taking a risk: training, sharing intelligence and planning missions with former members of Iranian-backed militias that once fought and killed Americans."

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A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine as she fills a prescription while working at a pharmacy in New York

Trump abandons key campaign promise on prescription medications

05/11/18 04:36PM

One of the few key areas on which Donald Trump broke with Republican Party orthodoxy was lowering prices on prescription drugs. In fact, as regular readers know, he complained bitterly shortly before taking office about the pharmaceutical industry’s powerful lobbyists, and said drug companies are “getting away with murder.”

The president has even accused the drug industry of corruption, arguing that pharmaceutical companies contribute “massive amounts of money” to politicians as part of a scheme to keep the cost of medicines higher.

He even had a bold idea: if elected, Trump told voters, he'd leverage Medicare's buying power to lower the cost of prescription medication. Shortly after the Republican's inauguration, the White House said the new president "absolutely" stood by that position.

And then, his posture changed, to the point that Trump put a pharmaceutical company executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services. And if that wasn't enough to cement this president's role as a key ally of drug makers, today did the trick.

President Donald Trump on Friday vowed to lower drug prices for American consumers, outlining a strategy that focuses on private-sector incentives but would not allow Medicare to use its leverage as the biggest player in the market to directly negotiate better bargains for its subscribers. [...]

While Trump said his proposal would give Medicare "new tools to negotiate lower prices" — such as allowing Medicare to change its formularies or benefit designs to respond to spikes in generic-drug prices — senior administration officials acknowledged in a briefing prior to his remarks that there is no plan to allow the program to directly barter with drug companies.

Or put another way, just days after Trump boasted, "When I make promises, I keep them," he audaciously broke one of his most populist promises.

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New fallout from Michael Cohen's shady deals

05/11/18 04:04PM

At a campaign rally last night, Donald Trump wasn't kidding when he declared, "Under my administration, we're fighting against the lobbyists, the special interests, and the corrupt Washington politics."

The president's timing could've been better. Trump, for example, has tapped a small army of lobbyists to work in his administration, many of whom help implement policy in the same areas in which they used to lobby. One of the president's cabinet officials, meanwhile, recently told a room full of wealthy bankers that the key to lobbying success in the Trump era is writing big checks to buy influence with policymakers.

And, of course, much of Trump World is the subject of ongoing investigations, raising the specter of Trump's presidency being the most corrupt in a generation.

But the comments were especially ill-timed because while Trump was taking a rhetorical stand against corrupt Washington politics, we were learning new details about the president's personal lawyer receiving undisclosed lobbying payments -- through a shell company used to pay hush money to a porn star -- from corporate giants hoping to influence his client in the Oval Office.

The fallout from the controversy continues to unfold. NBC News reported today:

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said hiring President Donald Trump's personal lawyer as a consultant was "a big mistake," according to a company memo sent on Friday.

The telecom giant hired attorney Michael Cohen, who has worked for Trump in a personal role for years, for advice on its pending merger with Time Warner. The company has said it paid Cohen $600,000 to gain "insights" into the president's thinking. The memo was first reported by Reuters.

The company, which changed its story more than once this week, described the Cohen contract as "a big mistake" and "a serious misjudgment."

The telecom giant added that its top lobbyist, who was responsible for hiring Cohen, is stepping down from his position.

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Image: Senate Judiciary Committee

Despite indictments, White House says Mueller probe lacks 'meat on the bone'

05/11/18 12:33PM

Vice President Mike Pence, who already has an unfortunate rhetorical record when it comes to the Russian scandal, sat down with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell yesterday and went a little further with some thoughts about the investigation.

"In the interests of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up." Pence said in reference to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe. The Indiana Republican went on to say that the Trump administration has "fully cooperated" with the investigation, adding, "I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion."

It was a weak pitch. Not only has the White House failed to fully cooperate -- Donald Trump, for example, has so far refused to answer Mueller's questions -- but the suggestion that it's time to "wrap up" the investigation appears to be based on nothing but some vague assertions about the calendar, as if a year-long probe into a scandal of this significance is somehow inappropriate.

Indeed, let's note for context that the Republicans' years-long investigation into Benghazi conspiracy theories was among the longest probes in American history, and when it comes to congressional scrutiny of specific individual events -- Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Kennedy Assassination, Watergate, etc. -- the Benghazi investigation was the longest ever. Pence never seemed to mind.

But implicit in Pence's appeal is the idea that the special counsel's investigation isn't amounting to much, so it might as well end. In a new NPR interview, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was more explicit on this point. Asked whether he believes the Russia investigation is a "witch hunt," as the president routinely calls it, Kelly said:

"Something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me that there is nothing there, relative to our president."

Maybe Kelly isn't paying close enough attention to current events.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.11.18

05/11/18 12:00PM

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

* Just days after finishing third in a Republican Senate primary in West Virginia, Don Blankenship (R) now says he's prepared to work against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who won the GOP nomination.

* In Arizona's U.S. Senate race, Rep. Martha McSally (R) is so eager to satisfy far-right voters, she's officially ended her co-sponsorship of a bipartisan bill to help Dreamers.

* Eighteen months after the 2016 presidential election, attendees at last night's Trump/Pence rally in Indiana broke out in a spontaneous "lock her up" chant, in apparent reference to Hillary Clinton.

* Now that the primaries are over in Ohio's gubernatorial race, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows former CFPB Director Richard Corday (D) with a modest lead over state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R), 44% to 39%. It's worth noting for context that a Republican has been Ohio's governor for 23 of the last 27 years.

* In an unexpected development, the Federal Election Commission announced yesterday that candidates for public office "can use campaign funds to pay for child care in certain cases." The ruling follows a petition from first-time congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley, a New York Democrat.

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Image: US-POLITICS-TRUMP

White House's Kelly questions immigrants' ability to 'assimilate'

05/11/18 11:20AM

It might be easy to think of John Kelly as the hapless White House chief of staff whom Donald Trump prefers to ignore and circumvent, but from time to time, the retired general reminds the public of his own controversial worldview. Consider this excerpt from Kelly's new interview with NPR:

"Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS13. ... But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don't speak English; obviously that's a big thing. ... They don't integrate well; they don't have skills...."

I was all set to respond to this with a rant about the historical parallels between Kelly's perspective and anti-immigrant rhetoric from generations past, but it looks like ThinkProgress beat me to the punch:

Concerns about immigrants' ability to assimilate with American society have been used repeatedly throughout the country's history to justify barring different groups from immigrating. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 until 1943, was passed because Chinese immigrants were blamed for the depressed wages that followed the Gold Rush and Civil War. In 1890, the New York Times printed an article that explained that while "the red and black assimilate… not so the Chinaman."

Similar arguments have been used since to justify xenophobia against Italian, Irish, Jewish, and -- most recently -- Muslim immigrants over the past century. As Splinter News points out, the Library of Congress still characterizes Kelly's Irish ancestors as having "left a rural lifestyle"; these "destitute" immigrants were "unprepared for the industrialized, urban centers in the United States."

One wonders why Kelly, the former Department of Homeland Security secretary, apparently isn't aware of all of this.

What's more, this is hardly the first controversy the White House chief of staff has found himself in the middle of.

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Image: BELGIUM-NATO-DEFENCE-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-MEETING

Trump insists he's boosted our international standing (he hasn't)

05/11/18 10:40AM

As part of Donald Trump's pitch at a Republican campaign rally last night, the president turned his attention to the United States' international standing.

...Mr. Trump appeared before an excited crowd to share his administration's track record: North Korea had freed three American prisoners. The United States had withdrawn from the nuclear agreement with Iran. And the American Embassy would soon open in Jerusalem.

The president's message to his voters was clear -- because of his efforts, "America is respected again."

Wouldn't it be great if that were true? Wouldn't it be nice if, during tumultuous times, the United States enjoyed broad international respect and credibility, thanks in part to an American president people around the world admired?

Alas, it's simply not the case. Even Trump's evidence is difficult to take seriously. Yes, some American hostages returned home this week from North Korea, but that's happened plenty of times before. And yes, the president withdrew from an effective international nuclear agreement with Iran, but by doing so, Trump infuriated many of our closest allies, many of whom begged him to be more responsible.

And yes, the U.S. embassy in Israel is moving, but that outraged Palestinian leaders and pushed them further away from any kind of peace agreement.

But there's no reason to stop there. Earlier this year, Gallup published a report that found, "One year into Donald Trump's presidency, the image of U.S. leadership is weaker worldwide than it was under his two predecessors." Consider the results in chart form:

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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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