At the time, it was an exchange that went by without causing much of a stir. In early May, Donald Trump sat down with Fox News' Bret Baier, who asked the Republican candidate whether he's ever spoken directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "I have no comment on that," Trump replied. "No comment."
Baier pressed further, noting Trump's usual habit of answering any question. Again Trump said, "I don't want to comment," adding that he was concerned about possibly undermining Putin's "confidence."
We've seen quite a few Trump interviews since he launched his White House bid, but this is probably the only time he said "no comment" three times in 20 seconds.
Two months later, questions about just how cozy Trump is with the Russian autocrat are growing a little louder. Take, for example, thisWashington Post column on the Republican Party's national platform, which Team Trump largely ignored -- except for the part about Russia.
The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won't call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces, contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington. [...]
Republican delegates at last week's national security committee platform meeting in Cleveland were surprised when the Trump campaign orchestrated a set of events to make sure that the GOP would not pledge to give Ukraine the weapons it has been asking for from the United States.
These details have not been independently confirmed by NBC News, though the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, reporting today from the Republican convention, said he'd spoken to a GOP congressman who believes the "most under-covered story of convention" is Team Trump's efforts to change the party platform "to be more pro-Putin."
In his much-discussed convention speech last night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) insisted Russia is "an adversary led by a dictator who dreams of reassembling the old Soviet empire," and I couldn't help but wonder: does Christie understand how much his pal Donald Trump likes that dictator?
Before we get into the Trump campaign's new explanation for Melania Trump's convention speech plagiarizing Michelle Obama, let's quickly review the remarkable series of defenses that preceded today's unexpected announcement.
After it was obvious that Melania Trump presented the First Lady's words as her own, the Trump campaign, its surrogates, and its allies experimented with a variety of explanations, starting with the notion that the incident was unimportant because it was only a couple of paragraphs. This gave way to arguments that this clear example of plagiarism wasn't plagiarism at all -- because it was really just an amazing coincidence.
And that's when things got really interesting. The controversy, we were told, was Hillary Clinton's fault. The controversy was also based on the assertion that Michelle Obama "invented the English language." For reasons I still don't understand, the RNC's Sean Spicer started talking about "My Little Pony." A Trump campaign spokesperson argued late yesterday that Melania Trump "wanted to communicate to Americans in phrases they have heard before," which is probably the funniest of all possible explanations.
Today, after remaining silent on the story for a day, Donald Trump himself weighed in via Twitter, calling the controversy "good news."
This afternoon, Team Trump changed directions once more, releasing a statement from Meredith Mciver, who described herself as "in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization," and "a longtime friend and admirer of the Trump family."
"In working with Melania Trump on her recent First Lady speech, we discussed many people who inspired her and messages she wanted to share with the American people. A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama. Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama's speech as examples.
"I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama's speeches. This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama. No harm was meant."
Mciver said she offered her resignation, but the Trump family "rejected it."
After Donald Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro (R), the co-chair of Trump's state veterans coalition, did his best to defend the candidate's proposal. "What he's saying is no different than the situation during World War II," Baldasaro said, "when we put the Japanese in camps."
The New Hampshire Republican intended this as a defense.
And while those comments certainly made a stir, the Republican activist's latest tirade is probably even more noteworthy. The Boston Globereports today:
A New Hampshire state representative who advises Donald Trump on veterans' issues called Tuesday for Hillary Clinton to be "put in the firing line and shot for treason" for her handling of the Benghazi terror attack.
Appearing on WRKO radio from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, state Representative Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican, called the presumptive Democratic nominee "a piece of garbage."
Note, Baldasaro's comments, which are obviously indefensible, are built entirely around conspiracy theories surrounding Benghazi -- all of which congressional Republicans have already debunked.
Some might be thinking the New Hampshire Republican lost his cool on a radio show, but after having time to cool down and regain his composure, he'll realize he went too far. But in Baldasaro's case, that's not true: the Boston Globefollowed up with him today, and the Trump adviser said he stood by his comments "without a doubt."
After complaining about Clinton's email server protocols, Baldasaro told the newspaper, "I stand by what I said." He added, "Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing. I spoke my mind about how I feel."
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* Donald Trump Jr. delivered a speech to the Republican convention with phrasing lifted from a magazine article, but since the article's writer helped write the speech, plagiarism allegations quickly faded.
* In the meantime, questions continue as to who was responsible for Melania Trump's speech, which included plagiarized portions from a Michelle Obama speech.
* A Trump campaign spokesperson said late yesterday that Melania Trump "wanted to communicate to Americans in phrases they have heard before," which is probably the funniest of all possible explanations.
* For the first time in the organization's 38-year history, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is endorsing a presidential candidate: it's backing Hillary Clinton.
* In a bit of a surprise, Donald Trump reportedly flew home Monday night, leaving his own convention so he could sleep at home.
* Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, suggested yesterday that Paul Manafort, Trump's current campaign chairman, may need to resign as a result of the plagiarism controversy. The score between these two clearly hasn't been settled.
* Wright State University in Ohio was scheduled to host a presidential debate in September, but the school announced yesterday that it's withdrawing, citing escalating costs. A replacement venue has not yet been selected.
Much of the political world's focus is on the Republican National Convention, but in the background, there's big news on the horizon: Hillary Clinton will reportedly announce her running mate at an event in Florida in just two days.
In the meantime, as observers look for hints, there are a handful of names generating the most scuttlebutt. The Washington Postreported late yesterday:
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia have emerged as the leading candidates on a longer list of finalists Hillary Clinton is considering for her vice-presidential running mate, according to interviews with multiple Democrats with knowledge of her deliberations.
Although her list is not limited to those two, Clinton has spoken highly of both in recent days to friends and advisers as she closes in on an announcement that could come as soon as Friday.
The Post's article noted that Clinton has sought advice on the matter from, among others, President Obama.
This reporting follows a series of private meetings Clinton had last week with leading contenders, including Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
And while many try to read the tea leaves, Clinton seemed to tilt her hand a bit on Monday during an interview with Charlie Rose, which included the presumptive Democratic nominee emphasizing "experience" as the key factor. "I am afflicted with the responsibility gene," she added.
Over the weekend, Donald Trump repeatedly insisted that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) was always his "first choice" for a running mate. No one seriously believes this, and no one should: Trump's reservations about the governor have been well documented, as have the near-desperate appeals to superior alternatives.
Take, for example, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a popular Republican governor of one of the nation's largest and most important swing states. Kasich's presidential campaign didn't turn out well -- he only won one state (his own) -- but the Ohioan is a highly credible figure in GOP politics and in the media. By most measures, his role on the GOP ticket would have made a significant and positive difference.
And with this in mind, the New York Times' Robert Draper reports today on an amazing attempt at outreach from Team Trump to the Ohio governor.
One day this past May, Donald Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., reached out to a senior adviser to Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who left the presidential race just a few weeks before. As a candidate, Kasich declared in March that Trump was "really not prepared to be president of the United States," and the following month he took the highly unusual step of coordinating with his rival Senator Ted Cruz in an effort to deny Trump the nomination. But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich's adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father's vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
"Making America great again" was the casual reply.
This reminds me of a story that went largely overlooked a few months ago.
It's easy to lose sight of the schedule, but the Republican National Convention has designated specific "themes" for each of the gathering's four nights. Monday, for example, was "Make America Safe Again" night, ostensibly devoted to national security and foreign policy. Last night was "Make America Work Again" night, which was supposed to mean a focus on the economy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Cleveland.
Monday night featured all kinds of over-the-top rhetoric about Benghazi and immigrants, which was accompanied by practically nothing on international affairs. There was, for examples, no discussion of Russia, North Korea, the civil war in Syria, or the recent attempted coup in Turkey. The party's messaging included all kinds of not-so-subtle racial appeals, but effectively nothing on America's role in the world in the 21st century.
Maybe that's to be expected. The Republican Party really doesn't have much of a foreign policy anyway, so perhaps it stands to reason that the party would struggle to find a message on the convention night devoted to international affairs. Last night, however, offered the party an opportunity to share its economic message -- which as Vox's Matt Yglesias explained, also doesn't exist.
On their "Make America Work Again" evening dedicated to jobs and the economy, Republicans needed to connect with Americans' still-very-real economic pain without falling into the trap of painting an excessively dark and unrecognizable situation.
Instead of rising to that challenge, they talked about Benghazi.
On the economic troubles afflicting the American middle class, they have nothing to say.
That might seem like an exaggeration. It's not. I heard House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) make brief references to their love of tax cuts, but in general, those who tuned in to the Republican National Convention would be forgiven for having no idea it was "Make America Work Again" night.
Who cares about job creation when there are Benghazi conspiracy theories to share?
In one of the campaign season's under-appreciated truths, Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration of authoritarian regimes, including Saddam Hussein's approach to due process. The Republican nominee has similarly offered praise for China's Tiananmen Square massacre, Vladimir Putin's tactics in Russia, and even Kim Jong-un's rule in North Korea.
By any fair measure, no major-party presidential nominee has ever gone quite this far in offering public praise for dictatorships, and it's one of the more unsettling elements of Trump's candidacy.
But this dynamic is made vastly more serious when the signature phrase of Trump's nominating convention is "Lock her up!" being chanted by an arena full of enraged Republicans.
The toxicity of the combination matters. As we talked about yesterday, the United States is not some banana republic, where one party vows to lock up the leaders of the other. And yet, against the backdrop of a GOP nominee who has a creepy affinity for authoritarian politics, we're witnessing a national convention in which Republicans appear eager to grab some pitchforks and make a citizens' arrest.
And as of last night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) positioned himself as the mob's ringleader. Slate's Michelle Goldberg captured the scene:
Christie began by criticizing the Obama administration for failing to hold Clinton accountable for her "dismal record" as secretary of state. "Tonight, as a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold Hillary Rodham Clinton accountable for her performance and her character," said Christie. The crowd erupted in chants of "LOCK HER UP! LOCK HER UP!" while Christie smiled and nodded. "Give me a few more minutes, we'll get there," he continued. "Here's what we're going to do. We're gonna present the facts to you, you, tonight, sitting as a jury of her peers, both in this hall and in your living rooms around our nation."
A series of charges followed. Some, like Clinton's mishandling of Libya, were at least partly legitimate. Others were bizarre. At one point, Christie faulted Clinton's response to the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, which happened after she left office. After each accusation, he asked, "Is she guilty or not guilty?" Each time, the crowd roared, "Guilty!"
July 19, 2016: the day the Republican National Convention became a Kangaroo Court.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but this isn't how politics is supposed to work in an advanced democracy. There's nothing in the American tradition that offers parallels to tactics like these.
Inviting Ben Carson to give a high-profile speech at the Republican National Convention may have seemed like a good idea to party officials and organizers. The retired physician may have failed badly as a presidential candidate, but he remains popular with the GOP base, and his speeches tend to be well received.
Sure, Carson has struggled badly at times as a surrogate for Donald Trump's campaign, but how bad could he be in Cleveland? After all, the party would review his prepared remarks in advance.
Of course, that only works out when Carson actually sticks to the script. Last night, he didn't.
Ben Carson went off script during his convention address Tuesday night, linking frequent conservative target Saul Alinsky -- and Lucifer -- to Hillary Clinton.
"One of the things I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes is Saul Alinsky," Carson said.
Alinsky has been a popular target for the right and his ideas have been tied to President Obama and Clinton. Carson said Alinsky acknowledged Lucifer in one of his books.
Straying from his prepared text, Carson posed a hypothetical question to his audience: "This is a nation where every coin in our pocket and every bill in our wallet says in 'In God We Trust.' So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer?"
Let's put aside for now the fact that Alinsky, a '60s-era organizer, is not actually Hillary Clinton's "role model." Let's also look past the right's bizarre preoccupation with the long-deceased radical activist.
Instead let's pause to appreciate what's become of Republican politics in the 21st century. Those who tuned in to watch the Republican National Convention in prime time heard a former presidential candidate play a degrees-of-separation game connecting the Democratic nominee to Lucifer.
Senator Amy Klobuchar talks with Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams about what to expect from next week's Democratic National Convention, how it will differ from the Republican convention and why Bernie Sanders supporters should get behind Hillary Clinton. watch
Robert Costa, national political reporter for The Washington Post, talks with Rachel Maddow about a new report on the genesis of Melania Trump's convention speech that seems to narrow the source of the questionable passages to Trump's inner circle. watch
Trump himself made a sharp public argument that Christie was guilty in the Bridgegate scandal: https://t.co/hYNWHKMiHS
Rachel Maddow remarks on how the New Jersey bridge investigation has burdened New Jersey governor Chris Christie politically and made him an imperfect vessel for criticism of Hillary Clinton's ethics. watch
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