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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers the convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University Jan. 18, 2016 in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

This Week in God, 10.15.16

02/13/17 12:23AM

After a hiatus, the God Machine is back this week, and first up is a story about one of the nation's more politically active evangelical colleges, which is facing a familiar schism.

Virginia's Liberty University, founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, is now run by his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., who also happens to be one of Donald Trump's most loyal and enthusiastic allies. Indeed, during the Republican presidential primaries, while many social conservatives and leaders of the religious right movement were rallying behind Ted Cruz, Falwell bucked the trend and offered his spirited support (no pun intended) a secular, thrice-married adulterer and casino owner who's never really demonstrated any interest in, or knowledge of, matters of faith.

Even this week, after Trump was heard boasting about sexual assault and accused by a variety of women of sexual misconduct, Falwell continued to express his enthusiastic support for the Republican nominee. The interesting twist, however, came when Liberty students -- a conservative, evangelical bunch -- balked. The Washington Post reported this week:
Students at Virginia's Liberty University have issued a statement against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as young conservatives at some colleges across the country reconsider support for his campaign.

A statement issued late Wednesday by the group Liberty United Against Trump strongly rebuked the candidate as well as the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for defending Trump after he made vulgar comments about women in a 2005 video. [...] The students at Liberty University wrote that they felt compelled to speak out in light of Falwell's steadfast support for Trump even after the candidate's comments about women and sexual assault.
The statement, released under the Liberty United Against Trump name, read, "Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him.... He has made his name by maligning others and bragging about his sins. Not only is Donald Trump a bad candidate for president, he is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose."

As of Thursday, the total number of Liberty students, alumni, and faculty who signed on to the letter stood at more than 1,300.

Falwell called the statement, among other things, "incoherent and false."
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Friday's Mini-Report, 2.10.17

02/10/17 05:32PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This won't make the issue go away: "Still regrouping from a federal appeals court's refusal to reinstate President Trump's controversial ban of nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries, White House lawyers are working on a rewrite of his executive order that could pass legal muster, NBC News has learned."

* This guy's in trouble: "National Security Advisor Mike Flynn discussed hacking-related sanctions with the Russian ambassador before the Trump administration took office, contrary to the public assertions of Vice President Mike Pence and White House spokesman Sean Spicer, a U.S. intelligence official told NBC News."

* This was a strange White House event: "President Donald Trump on Friday praised the U.S.-Japan relationship, calling the country an 'important and steadfast ally.'"

* Quite a start: "Newly confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had to enter a middle school in Southwest Washington through the back door after protesters blocked the front entrance."

* In the middle of the night, the Senate voted to confirm Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Every Republican voted for him; every Democrat voted against him.

* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) "postponed eight executions on Friday, two weeks after a federal judge ruled that the state's lethal injection method might be too painful to be legal."

* How badly did Trump screw up the One China fiasco? Chinese state-run media is now openly trolling him on Twitter.
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Image: U.S. President-elect Donald Trump talks to members of the media at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida

Trump voter-fraud allegations start to look 'deranged'

02/10/17 05:00PM

The fact that Donald Trump continues to talk incessantly about the election from three months ago doesn't bother me. The fact that Donald Trump continues to embrace and repeat delusional conspiracy theories about the election worries me a great deal.
On Thursday, during a meeting with 10 senators that was billed as a listening session about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the president went off on a familiar tangent, suggesting again that he was a victim of widespread voter fraud, despite the fact that he won the presidential election.

As soon as the door closed and the reporters allowed to observe for a few minutes had been ushered out, Trump began to talk about the election, participants said, triggered by the presence of former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost her reelection bid in November and is now working for Trump as a Capitol Hill liaison, or "Sherpa," on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.
According to the Politico article, the president told attendees that he and Ayotte would have won New Hampshire -- both narrowly lost in reality -- were it not for "thousands" of "illegally" cast ballots. Trump reportedly added that he believes these voters were "brought in on buses" from neighboring Massachusetts.

There was, according to one of Politico's sources, "an uncomfortable silence" in the room after Trump made the comment.

Which is the proper response under the circumstances. As MSNBC's Chris Hayes put it, these ridiculous presidential assertions, bolstered by literally no evidence, are clearly "deranged."

Worse, they're part of a pattern.
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The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)

What happened to Donald Trump's Russia scandal?

02/10/17 04:15PM

For a while, it looked like the biggest political scandal in at least a generation. Russian officials, acting at Vladimir Putin's behest, intervened in the American presidential election, in order to put a pro-Russian candidate in the White House.

As recently as Inauguration Day -- three weeks ago today -- we saw reports that a U.S. counter-intelligence investigation was ongoing, "examining intercepted communications and financial transactions" between Moscow and associates of Donald Trump."

Trump's presidency was already dogged by questions of legitimacy given that nearly 3 million more Americans voted for his opponent, but the idea that a foreign adversary helped tip the scales in his direction raised the volume on those concerns. There was every reason to believe this scandal would help define Trump's time in office.

And yet, the story has generally faded from front pages, replaced with other, newer Trump-related controversies, failures, and mistakes. Mother Jones' David Corn noted yesterday that we're talking about "the biggest election-related scandal since Watergate," but it's "largely disappeared from the political-media landscape."
It is true that the intelligence committee probes are being conducted secretly, and there are no public hearings or actions to cover.... Still, in the past, pundits, politicians, and reporters in Washington have not been reluctant to go all-out in covering and commenting upon a controversy subjected to private investigation.

In this instance, the president's own people may be under investigation, and Trump has demonstrated no interest in holding Putin accountable for messing with US elections in what may be considered an act of covert warfare. Still, there has been no loud demand from the DC media (or most of the GOP) for answers and explanations. This quietude is good news for Putin -- and reason for him to think he could get away with such an operation again.
It's a good point, though it's worth emphasizing that the story is far from finished -- and if Trump supporters are hoping the scandal has simply faded away, they're likely to be disappointed.
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Republican nominee Donald Trump is seen during the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on Sept. 26, 2016. (Photo by Joe Raedle/AFP/Getty)

Trump slowly realizes he can't run the government like a business

02/10/17 12:56PM

Just two days after winning the presidential election, Donald Trump had a private meeting with President Obama in the White House, where the Democrat started walking the Republican through some of his duties. Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal's sources, "seemed surprised by the scope" of the presidency.

It relates to an important detail that went largely overlooked during the 2016 race: Donald Trump, the only president in American history with literally no background in public service, not only has little understanding of current events and government institutions, but he's also never really understood the presidency itself. As ridiculous as it may sound, Trump applied for a job -- by some measures, one of the most difficult jobs on the planet -- he knew precious little about.

If his posturing and rhetoric are any indication, the New York Republican seemed to believe he already had the necessary skill set because of his private-sector background, and he may have assumed he could run the executive branch like he ran his business. Politico reports today that Trump is slowly realizing that doesn't work, and he's "growing increasingly frustrated."
In interviews, nearly two dozen people who've spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he's faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks. [...]

Trump often asks simple questions about policies, proposals and personnel. And, when discussions get bogged down in details, the president has been known to quickly change the subject -- to "seem in control at all times," one senior government official said -- or direct questions about details to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay -- or even stop -- him from filling positions and implementing policies.
Everyone who's ever held the presidency has grown frustrated with the institutional limits and constraints, but it's Trump's "disbelief" that's notable. It's as if, in his mind, the power of the presidency is vast enough that he should be able to do as he pleases, simply by making a decision.

One of the most common and underappreciated phrases he used during the campaign was "very quickly" -- he used to describe how he'd resolve a wide variety of challenges -- because as Trump imagined the presidency, he'd simply bark orders and implement his vision, without excessive thought or study.

Little did he know there are whole other branches of government that play a role -- made more complicated by federal agencies with their own ideas.
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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 2.10.17

02/10/17 12:00PM

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

* The Republican National Committee has already launched a fundraising campaign hoping to capitalize on the 9th Circuit's ruling against Donald Trump's Muslim ban.

* Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, may represent one of the most Republican districts in the nation, but when the Utah Republican hosted a forum last night with constituents, he faced aggressive pushback from local citizens, many of whom chanted, "Do your job!"

* On a related note, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) has cancelled an upcoming event for constituents, because, according to his communications director, the event had been "re-branded by a group of liberal activists."

* Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) also cancelled a local event this week, which had been billed as a "town hall" gathering that was free and open to the public.

* Public Policy Polling has published online the full report that Rachel featured exclusively on last night's show. Long story short: Trump and his agenda aren't doing well.

* Moving with incredible speed, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) was sworn in yesterday afternoon as the new U.S. senator from Alabama, filling Jeff Sessions' vacancy.

* With Mike Pompeo giving up his congressional seat to lead the CIA, Kansas Republicans chose a nominee to succeed him last night, rallying behind state Treasurer Ron Estes. The special election will be held April 11, and Democrats are not expected to seriously compete.
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Image: US President Trump signs executive order to allow Dakota,. Keystone pipelines

Some Trump orders are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

02/10/17 11:20AM

Since taking office three weeks ago, Donald Trump hasn't spent much time signing bills into law, at least not yet, but he's been quite aggressive with executive orders, actions, and directives. Some, such as his controversial Muslim ban, have had an enormous policy impact, affecting thousands of people.

Others, however, appear almost meaningless. The New York Times reported yesterday on the latest batch from the Oval Office.
At an Oval Office ceremony for the swearing in of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, President Trump announced that he was also going to sign three executive orders "designed to restore safety in America," to "break the back" of cartels and "stop as of today" violence against the police. [...]

[A]bout 45 minutes later, when the White House released the actual text of the three orders, they turned out to contain few specific policy steps.
One of the orders noted Trump's disapproval of international criminal cartels. The other two ordered the attorney general's office to look for ways to reduce crime rates (which the president continues to describe in demonstrably wrong ways).

In other words, Trump put on a little show in the White House, with leather-bound documents and a well-covered signing ceremony, to sign executive directives that don't actually do anything, other than send rhetorical signals about the new administration's priorities.

Or put another way, we're talking about glorified press releases. These actions may help pave the way for future actions -- I'd expect Republicans to take up some kind of "Blue Lives Matter" legislation in this Congress -- but that doesn't mean the orders themselves carry real policy weight.
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The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

On civility, GOP picks the wrong messengers for the right message

02/10/17 10:40AM

During the debate over Jeff Sessions' attorney general nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to read a letter from the late Coretta Scott King, only to get shut down by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said the letter was, in effect, too mean to be read on the Senate floor.

The incident ended up generating some renewed interest in political civility, with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) arguing, for example, "We have to treat each other with respect or this place is going to devolve into a jungle." The Utah Republican added that Jeff Sessions' Senate critics "ought to be ashamed" of their harsh rhetoric towards a colleague, reminding Democrats to "think of his wife."

It was, however, literally last week when Hatch called his Democratic Senate colleagues "idiots." Hatch is also on record describing progressives as "dumbass liberals."

So much for treating people with "respect."

A day later, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza celebrated floor remarks from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also used the Warren/McConnell dispute as a springboard to talk about political civility.
Rubio's speech was a plea for civility in the Senate, a warning that if civilized debate dies in the Senate, it will die in the broader society too. It's an important address — and one well worth spending eight minutes of your life listening to.

"We are becoming a society incapable of having debate anymore.... We are reaching a point in this republic where we are not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.

"What's at stake here tonight ... is not simply some rule but the ability of the most important nation on earth to debate in a productive and respectful way the pressing issues before it."
I don't have a problem with the message. I take issue with the messengers.
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Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chairman Sheldon Adelson speaks to students at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada in Las Vegas, April 26, 2012.

A Republican megadonor and the 'perfect little puppet'

02/10/17 10:03AM

Exactly three weeks ago, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation's 45th president, delivering a widely panned inaugural address in which he vowed to transfer power from the nation's capital "back to you, the people."

Seated behind Trump were members of Congress, members of the new president's family, former presidents, and one Republican Party megadonor: billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. It was the first time in recent memory a new president welcomed a major campaign contributor literally onto the inaugural dais. Soon after, Adelson attended an exclusive luncheon with Trump and congressional leaders at the Capitol.

It's the same Republican megadonor who also joined Trump for dinner last night at the White House. The Washington Post reported yesterday about the presidential gathering:
Republican financier Sheldon Adelson will dine with President Trump on Thursday night at the White House, according to a Trump adviser who was not authorized to speak publicly. Other White House officials and Trump associates are also expected to attend the dinner, the adviser said.

Adelson, who has an estimated net worth of $29.6 billion, and his wife, Miriam, were major Trump donors last year, and continue to have a close relationship with the president.
Evidently. The casino magnate contributed tens of millions of dollars to help put Trump in the White House, which appears to have bought him the kind of access "you, the people" don't enjoy.

At face value, the idea that a sitting president would break bread with a major donor isn't that unusual -- every modern president has done the same thing -- but it's Trump's previous comments about Adelson in particular that make this relationship noteworthy.
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