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

Republicans take church politicking bill in a radical direction

11/13/17 12:53PM

Since before last year's election, Donald Trump has promised the religious right he'd deliver on one of the movement's top priorities: allowing houses of worship to engage in partisan activities without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. To that end, Republican legislation to change federal tax law has slowly been working its way through Capitol Hill this year.

But that bill may not be necessary. GOP policymakers have also included repeal of the Johnson Amendment, the tax law provision that prohibits church politicking, in the Republican tax plan. As a strategic matter, this makes sense: the proposed tax cuts aren't especially popular, so it stands to reason GOP officials would try to generate some support from their Christian conservative allies.

Late last week, however, The Hill noted that House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) made some changes to the tax plan, including one big one related to non-profits and political activities.

Under the amendment, churches and other nonprofits with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status would be able to engage in political speech from 2019 to 2023. The initial bill would not have had a sunset date but would have only applied to houses of worship, rather than all 501(c)(3) organizations.

Let's unpack this a bit. Under current law, tax-exempt houses of worship that engage in partisan political activities risk losing their tax exemption. Under the initial Republican plan, the law would be changed to allow ministries to intervene in elections and keep their tax-exempt status anyway.

Under the latest GOP proposal, which passed the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, all tax-exempt groups -- houses of worship, universities and other educational organizations, charities, publications, etc. -- could engage in partisan politicking without fear of punishment from the IRS.

In other words, every U.S. non-profit that is now, by law, non-partisan could start endorsing candidates, aligning with super PACs, contributing to political parties, etc.

Faced with a controversy over their efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment, Republicans managed to make their effort quite a bit more radical.

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 11.13.17

11/13/17 12:00PM

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

* Though I'd recommend caution when reading polls conducted in the middle of a firestorm, JMC Analytics' latest poll of Alabama's U.S. Senate special election found Doug Jones (D) leading Roy Moore (R), 48% to 44%.

* Asked specifically this morning whether he believes the claims made by Roy Moore's accusers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters this morning, "I believe the women, yes." [Update: McConnell added this morning, in reference to Moore, "I think he should step aside."

* The New York Times reported that GOP officials have weighed a plan in which they'd urge Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to cancel the Dec. 12 special election, "giving the party time to ease Mr. Moore from the race." The governor's office said yesterday that this isn't going to happen.

* In Green Bay this morning, Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, kicked off his Democratic gubernatorial campaign, hoping to deny Gov. Scott Walker (R) a third term. Mitchell is the first African American to run for governor in Wisconsin.

* In Massachusetts, Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email as a teenager, was running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican. Over the weekend, he re-launched his statewide bid and is now running as an independent.

* Though Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) hasn't officially announced his 2018 election plans, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is taking a variety of steps in preparation for a Senate campaign in Utah.

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Image: President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office

Trump taps former pharmaceutical industry executive to lead HHS

11/13/17 11:20AM

It's been about six weeks since Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was forced to resign, stemming from a controversy in which he repeatedly had taxpayers pay for his travel on private jets. Today, Donald Trump announced his nominee for Price's replacement.

President Donald Trump said Monday that he will nominate former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar as secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Azar, 50, had until last January served as president of the American arm of drug giant Eli Lilly and Company. The Yale Law graduate Azar also had served as general counsel of HHS in the administration of President George W. Bush.

To be sure, Azar's nomination doesn't come as too big of a surprise. Nearly a month ago, reports surfaced that Azar was the frontrunner for the job; he's a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act; and he's a doctrinaire partisan on the Republican Party's regressive health care agenda, especially on issues such as gutting Medicaid through block grants.

What is surprising, though, is that this president would tap a drug company executive to oversee federal health care policy.

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

As Russia scandal unfolds, Cambridge Analytica draws new scrutiny

11/13/17 10:41AM

There's no shortage of relevant angles to Donald Trump's Russia scandal, but it's worth appreciating the significance of Cambridge Analytica's role in this mess.

As you've probably seen Rachel mention on the show, Cambridge Analytica is the data firm the Trump campaign hired during last year's presidential election. The firm took on added significance two weeks ago when the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump donor Rebekah Mercer asked Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix "whether the company could better organize the Hillary Clinton-related emails being released by WikiLeaks," which allegedly received stolen documents from Russian hackers.

The WSJ added some additional details to the timeline late Friday, reporting that Cambridge Analytica initiated contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in "early June 2016."

When Mr. Nix's approach to WikiLeaks was reported by The Wall Street Journal last month, it wasn't clear whether Cambridge was working for the Trump campaign at the time. Federal Election Commission records show the first payment by the campaign to Cambridge Analytica is dated July 29, 2016.

New details about the timing of Cambridge Analytica's Trump campaign work show that the firm's effort to obtain the Clinton emails—which U.S. intelligence agencies later determined had been stolen by Russian intelligence and given to the Sweden-based WikiLeaks—came as the company was in the advanced stages of contract negotiations with the campaign and had already dispatched employees to help it.

The same article added that Cambridge Analytica "collected close to $9 million from the campaign, including $6 million that was publicly disclosed and additional funds routed through Giles Parscale, a firm run by Trump digital director Brad Parscale, according to a person familiar with the payments -- about 50% more than publicly reported."

Trump World, true to form, has tried to downplay its connections with the firm. It's an odd thing to lie about.

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Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, pauses while speaking during The Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa on July 18, 2015. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty)

Trump's trade policies backfire, leave U.S. more isolated

11/13/17 10:03AM

On Donald Trump's third day as president, he announced the formal demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the Republican president claimed to hate for reasons he struggled to explain. By all appearances, Trump had no idea what the TPP was or what it entailed, but he was nevertheless certain he didn't like it.

In January, the president assured Americans he'd replace the TPP with a "beautiful" alternative. It's now mid-November and we've seen no such policy.

The issue, however, remains on his mind. A week ago, for example, Trump was in Tokyo, speaking to Japanese business leaders, many of whom backed the TPP. "We will have more trade than anybody ever thought of under TPP, that I can tell you," the American president promised. "TPP was not the right idea. Probably some of you in this room disagree, but ultimately I'll be proven to be right."

The proof actually suggests he's more confused than accurate. As Trump's Asia-Pacific tour continues, his White House has some specific trade benefits in mind, each of which were already part of the TPP that this administration helped kill.

Making matters worse, as the New York Times reported, our former negotiating partners are moving on without us.

A group of 11 countries announced on Saturday that they had committed to resurrecting a sweeping multinational trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, without the United States. A new deal, which would have to be signed and ratified by each country, would include major United States allies like Japan, Canada and Mexico. Collectively, they account for about a sixth of global trade.

The agreement will "serve as a foundation for building a broader free-trade area" across Asia, Taro Kono, Japan's foreign minister, said in a statement.

As the Washington Post's report explained, "The decision to move ahead with the TPP agreement, minus the United States, reflects how Trump's decision to withdraw from the deal created a vacuum other nations are now moving to fill, with or without the president."

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Like Ryan, McConnell abandons key boast on GOP tax cut plan

11/13/17 09:30AM

Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told a variety of conservative media outlets that the Republican tax plan would deliver "a tax cut for everybody." When evidence emerged that millions of middle-class households would pay more under the GOP proposal, Ryan's office conceded that the Speaker "misspoke."

Evidently, there's a lot of that going around.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, acknowledged on Friday that the Republican tax plan might result in a tax hike for some working Americans, saying he "misspoke" days earlier when he said that "nobody in the middle class is going to get a tax increase" under the Senate bill.

"I misspoke on that," Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in an interview on Friday with The New York Times.

Remember, the ostensible point of the entire exercise was the GOP's stated desire to lower taxes on the middle class. And yet, last week, both the top Republican in the House and the top Republican in the Senate acknowledged some in the middle class will pay more in taxes, not less, under their plan.

This seems likely to create political problems for the party, but before we go too far down that road, GOP leaders are confronting a more immediate problem: their tax plan may not be able to pass.

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while delivering a speech during the 80th National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) founding anniversary at the NBI headquarters in metro Manila, Philippines on Nov. 14, 2016. (Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

With Duterte, Trump misses another opportunity to lead

11/13/17 09:00AM

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump boasted to the press about his upcoming trip to the Philippines, where he expected a warm welcome from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. "We're going to the Philippines ... where the previous administration was not exactly welcome," Trump bragged.

What the Republican president may not realize is that it was Barack Obama, disgusted by Duterte's human-rights abuses, who called off his scheduled meeting with the Filipino leader. (The Washington Post noted the relevant details made Trump's boast "exceedingly strange.")

Nevertheless, the American president is in Manila, where, as the Associated Press noted, Trump "repeatedly praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, calling him by his first name," and shared "a joke about the media."

In context, Duterte, who has publicly raised the specter of assassinating journalists he disapproves of, accused reporters today of being "spies" -- a line Trump seemed to enjoy.

After the meeting, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights "briefly came up in the context of the Philippines' fight against illegal drugs." Duterte aides said that wasn't true.

...Mr. Duterte's spokesman denied that the subject of rights was ever broached, even as the Philippine president spoke about the "drug menace" in his country.

Mr. Trump "appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter and was merely nodding his head, indicating that he understood the domestic problem that we faced on drugs," said Harry Roque, Mr. Duterte's spokesman. "The issue of human rights did not arise; it was not brought up."

Of course, even for those who are inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt, there's a broader concern here: if Trump "briefly" broached the subject of human rights, what exactly did the American president say?

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Image: Roy Moore

Roy Moore struggles to overcome his latest scandal

11/13/17 08:30AM

It's worth taking a moment from time to time to appreciate the fact that Roy Moore's troubles didn't start last week. MSNBC's Chris Hayes noted the other day that the Alabama Republican "was astoundingly unfit to be a US Senator before these allegations."

In context, "these allegations" refers the evidence that Moore dated teenagers when he was in his 30s, including an alleged encounter uncovered by the Washington Post between Moore and a 14-year-old girl when the Alabaman was 32.

But given the circumstances, the other qualities that made Moore "astoundingly unfit" to be a senator -- his lawlessness, his ignorance, his radicalism, his bigotry -- have been overshadowed by the allegations of sexual misconduct with teen-aged girls.

In an apparent attempt to get the controversy behind him, Moore talked to Fox News' Sean Hannity -- a proponent of his Republican candidacy -- on Friday, though it did little to put out the fire. On the contrary, over the course of the interview, Moore, while denying some details, seemed to make matters worse by saying he didn't "generally" pursue teenagers when he was in his 30s.

It also didn't help when Moore, by way of a defense, added, "I don't remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother."

Complicating matters further, there's new evidence for the public to consider.

A former prosecutor who once worked alongside embattled Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore in the early 1980s told CNN it was "common knowledge" at the time that Moore dated high school girls.

"It was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls, everyone we knew thought it was weird," former deputy district attorney Teresa Jones told CNN in comments aired Saturday. "We wondered why someone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall ... but you really wouldn't say anything to someone like that."

At this point, some of Moore's Republican brethren have seen enough.

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Image: TOPSHOT-GERMANY-G20-SUMMIT

While abroad, Trump finds new ways to side with Russia's Putin

11/13/17 08:00AM

For over a year, Donald Trump has confronted questions about Russia's espionage operation that helped put him in power, and the Republican's line hasn't much changed: Trump doesn't believe what U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly told him about the attack.

Over the weekend, however, the American president, nearing the end of his Asia-Pacific tour, went even further to carry water for his suspected benefactor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"[Putin] said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did," Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Hanoi following a meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang.

Asked directly if he believed Putin, Trump suggested he was keen to move on to other issues. "Look," he said, "I can't stand there and argue with him. I would rather have him get out of Syria, to be honest with you. I would rather ... get to work with him on the Ukraine."

But moments later, Trump circled back to the issue of meddling, saying that Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement. "Every time he sees me he says, 'I didn't do that,' and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," the president said.

Right, of course. A former KGB agent who now maintains autocratic rule over a U.S. adversary is responsible for the most serious attack against Americans since 9/11. What's he going to do, lie?

And what's Trump supposed to do, listen to the word of American intelligence professionals over that of Vladimir Putin?

Perhaps realizing that this was politically unwise -- Trump spent Veterans' Day siding with an authoritarian Russian leader over his own country's intelligence assessments -- the American president tried to hedge a bit yesterday, telling reporters he sides "with our agencies." Those would be the same agencies Trump has ridiculed and publicly doubted since before his election last fall.

The trouble, of course, is that the damage was already done. Instead of standing "with our agencies," a day earlier, Trump condemned U.S. intelligence findings as a politically motivated "hit job." Indeed, the American president went after former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and former FBI Director James Comey by name, blasting them as "hacks."

Trump added that he thinks Putin "is very insulted by" the scandal -- if there's one thing the American president should be concerned about, it's Vladimir Putin's feelings -- and that "people will die" as a result of the controversy.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 11.10.17

11/10/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Rohrabacher: "Investigators for Special Counsel Robert Mueller are questioning witnesses about an alleged September 2016 meeting between Mike Flynn, who later briefly served as President Donald Trump's national security adviser, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch advocate of policies that would help Russia, two sources with knowledge of the investigation told NBC News."

* Tell me more: "Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, attended a breakfast meeting in January that Michael Flynn, then the incoming national security adviser, and Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, also attended."

* I think the Cambridge Analytica angle is underappreciated: "The chief executive of Cambridge Analytica contacted the founder of WikiLeaks to ask him to share Hillary Clinton -related emails at the same time that people familiar with the matter say the British data-analytics firm had begun working for President Donald Trump's campaign."

* Lebanon: "A week after the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, flew to Saudi Arabia and announced his resignation, what seemed at first like a bizarre domestic political dispute is escalating tensions in the Middle East and threatening to become a flash point in the struggle for power there."

* Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix: "A military jury sentenced a former Marine drill instructor to 10 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge from the service Friday for subjecting Muslim recruits to verbal and physical abuse, including one young man who committed suicide after an especially troubling encounter."

* Trump-Russia: "White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has been interviewed as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The interview brings the special counsel investigation into President Donald Trump's inner circle in the White House. Miller is the highest-level aide still working at the White House known to have talked to investigators."

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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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