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 Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) of the House Select Committee on Benghazi speaks to reporters at a press conference on the findings of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's personal emails at the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

GOP committee's lawyer undercuts Benghazi conspiracy theory

05/16/16 10:02AM

Things have not been going well for the House Republicans' Benghazi committee, which is overseeing an investigation that, as of last week, has now lasted over two years. This morning, things have managed to get worse for the GOP's partisan witch hunt.
 
As of a couple of weeks ago, the Defense Department started pushing back against the committee Republicans' increasingly outlandish demands. In no uncertain terms, the Pentagon let Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) know the panel's requests have become "unnecessary" and "unproductive." Worse, the DoD believes the partisan committee is guilty of "encouraging speculation" from witnesses, rather than focusing on facts and evidence.
 
Today, however, the beleaguered committee, whose very existence has become something of a joke, is facing a new round of embarrassing headlines. The Huffington Post reported:
Shortly before the House Benghazi committee ramped up its battles with the Department of Defense in its probe of the 2012 terrorist attack, the committee's own top lawyer admitted at least four times in interviews with military officials that there was no more they could have done on that tragic night.
 
That's according to a letter obtained by The Huffington Post that was sent Sunday to the chairman of the committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), from the top Democrats on the Benghazi panel and the House Armed Services Committee, Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
Remember, the whole point of the right-wing conspiracy theory is built around the idea that the military could've done more to intervene in Benghazi the night of the September 2012 attack, but it didn't for political reasons. Military leaders, the State Department, and multiple congressional investigations all concluded that the conspiracy theory is wrong, but House Republicans don't care, which is why they created a committee, led by Trey Gowdy, to tell conservatives what they want to hear.
 
Now, however, there's evidence that Gowdy's former top committee staffer already concluded that the question has been answered truthfully. The Benghazi panel is investigating a conspiracy theory that the committee's lawyer considers bogus.
Confetti on the floor on the last day of the 2012 Republican National Convention.

The Republican Party's civil war ends before it starts

05/16/16 09:20AM

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to look at the divisions within the Republican Party about Donald Trump's looming presidential nomination. The first way, embraced by much of the political establishment, is that the GOP is divided in ways unseen in generations. For the first time in modern history, the party has a nominee facing public, unyielding opposition from members of Congress, governors, and former nominees. In 2016, the argument goes, Republicans find themselves with a house divided.
 
The other way is to note just how small and inconsequential the "Never Trump" faction really is. Sure, there are some notable GOP officials who cannot bring themselves to back the party's inevitable nominee, but three senators, Mitt Romney, and the Bush family do not a civil war make.
 
Both theses have some merit, but the facts favor the latter. In modern history, Republicans have never seen the kind of divisions they're experiencing now, but as it turns out, that's not saying much -- the GOP generally excels in party discipline, so almost any number of renegades would appear dramatic -- and the size of the GOP's anti-Trump contingent is both small and stagnant.
 
And yet, the Washington Post reported over the weekend that these forces aren't yet ready to throw in the towel.
These GOP figures are commissioning private polling, lining up major funding sources­ and courting potential contenders, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republicans involved in the discussions. [...]
 
Those involved concede that an independent campaign at this late stage is probably futile, and they think they have only a couple of weeks to launch a credible bid. But these Republicans -- including commentators William Kristol and Erick Erickson and strategists Mike Murphy, Stuart Stevens and Rick Wilson -- are so repulsed by the prospect of Trump as commander in chief that they are desperate to take action.
Romney is reportedly playing a direct role in the endeavor, and the Post added that the 2012 Republican nominee has personally reached out to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich about possible candidacies.
 
It's worth appreciating why this effort is doomed.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders pose together onstage at the start of the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Flint, Mich., March 6, 2016. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Dems fear chaos at Nevada convention portends July mess

05/16/16 08:40AM

On the surface, the results from the state Democratic convention in Nevada may not seem especially noteworthy. Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in the state's caucuses in February, and her supporters prevailed at Saturday's party gathering where delegates to the national convention were chosen. None of this has much of an effect on the overall race.
 
At least, that's the way it may look on paper. When activists gathered in Las Vegas on Saturday, however, Sanders supporters hoped to take advantage of Nevada's complex process to give him the statewide edge in the delegate count, despite coming in second in February balloting.
 
The Washington Post published a good overview, explaining just how ugly the developments became.
Prior to the state convention, some Sanders supporters began an effort to shift the convention rules in a way that they viewed as more favorable to their candidate. One of those changes, the Las Vegas Sun reported, was a process for verifying voice votes; another took issue with the state party chairwoman, Roberta Lange, heading up the convention. Supporters at the event circulated petitions to the same end. The scene was set.
 
The first report from the credentials committee on Saturday morning indicated that Clinton had a slight edge in delegates. Sanders fans voted against that report, per Jon Ralston, and then demanded a recount -- but this was simply a preliminary figure.... That was when the vote to approve the rules as written -- Roberta's Rules versus Robert's Rules, as some Sanders backers dubbed them -- was conducted by voice vote. The motion, seconded by a Sanders supporter, passed -- which is when the room, in Ralston's phrasing, "erupts."
Determining exactly who was in the right and who was in the wrong is surprisingly difficult. Sanders' supporters are absolutely convinced that the process was "rigged" to undermine the senator. Clinton supporters are equally convinced that they followed the rules and Sanders' backers are throwing a tantrum because they came up short. I wasn't there; I know little about the complex Nevada-based rules; and it's tough to tell from reading the local reports which side has the stronger case.
 
What's far clearer is how unruly the party gathering became. Nevada's Jon Ralston reported that the convention ended with security shutting down the event, followed by pro-Sanders activists rushing the stage, "yelling obscenities," and "throwing chairs."
 
That's obviously the kind of state convention officials like to avoid, but the larger concern among Democrats is what the mess in Las Vegas portends for the national convention in July.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally May 5, 2016 in Charleston, W. Va. (Photo by Brendan Smiawloski/AFP/Getty)

Republican leader: Trump's alter ego 'a little odd'

05/16/16 08:00AM

Imagine an alternate recent history. Imagine if, on Friday morning, Donald Trump were asked about the times he pretended to be his own publicist when talking to reporters, and he replied, "You know, 'John Miller' and 'John Barron' were jokes that went awry. This was years ago and I was just kidding around."
 
The proof that Trump created a bizarre alter ego for himself still would have been a story -- if you're pretending to be someone else in order to feed praise about yourself to reporters, you probably have some issues -- but it probably wouldn't have been quite as captivating a story.
 
Except the Republican candidate just can't help himself. Trump felt compelled to lie reflexively, denying what he's already admitted, and pretending his voice on a recording isn't really his.
 
The new challenge is coming up with a defense. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, for example, hasn't quite figured out exactly what he wants to say on the subject. CBS's John Dickerson asked Priebus about this yesterday on "Face the Nation."
DICKERSON: Mr. Chairman, I would like to ask you about a report that Donald Trump in the 1990s served as his own spokesman under another name. What do you make of that?
 
PRIEBUS: It's just -- it's a little bit odd, but I will just tell you that I think, of all the things facing this country right now, and after being through this primary for a year, I can assure you that that particular issue is not going to move the electorate.
Maybe, maybe not. Trump has no record of public service, and no real policy platform, so voters are left to evaluate the presumptive Republican nominee on some of his more personal qualities. The fact that he pretended to be his own publicist, making up an alter ego to brag to reporters about his professed greatness in third person, only to lie about it years later, might very well move some of the electorate.
 
Paul Manafort, one of the Trump campaign's top aides, tried a slightly different tack with CNN's Jake Tapper:
By combining observations from over 15 years with the Chandra X-ray Observatory and 30 years with the Very Large Array, scientists have been able to learn new things about Tycho's supernova remnant and the explosion that created it.

Week in Geek - GIFs in SPAAAACE edition

05/15/16 10:41AM

NASA just released an amazing GIF showing the evolution of this supernova remnant over the past fifteen years.

Looking out into space is looking back in time, but we've been looking out into space from Earth for millennia now, so it makes sense that we might see some things change. That's exactly what is currently happening with Tycho's supernova. Tycho Brahe was a Danish astronomer who spend years charting the stars overhead and tracking their motions.

In 1572, he observed a new star in the constellation of Cassiopeia that he hadn't seen before. It stayed visible in the night sky for almost two years and in the beginning it was said to have been as bright as Venus. Tycho studied the star night after night and eventually published his observations and dubbed it "de nova stella", meaning " new star".

We now know this star to be a supernova, called SN1572 and more commonly known as Tycho's supernova, that occurred roughly 8,000 light years away from us. What's left now is a remnant of the original explosion which astronomers on Earth have been observing for centuries. In the last few decades, we've added observations at X-ray wavelengths with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to make the composite image shown above. Even more spectacular though, is this GIF which shows how SN1572 has evolved over the past fifteen years.

 

Analyzing how the remnant is changing over time has allowed astronomers to estimate the maximum speed of the blast wave at 12 million miles per hour! They were also able to determine that the center of outward motion is offset from the geometric center of the remnant by roughly 10% of the remnant's radius (offset up and to the left). These parameters are important for characterizing the supernova as stated in NASA's press release:

"Understanding the location of the explosion center for Type Ia supernovas is important because it narrows the search region for a surviving companion star. Any surviving companion star would help identify the trigger mechanism for the supernova, showing that the white dwarf pulled material from the companion star until it reached a critical mass and exploded. The lack of a companion star would favor the other main trigger mechanism, where two white dwarfs merge causing the critical mass to be exceeded, leaving no star behind."

Here's some more geek from the week:

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Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, speaks at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington on Oct. 7, 2011. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

This Week in God, 5.14.16

05/14/16 07:31AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an over-the-top reaction from the religious right movement to the Obama administration's latest efforts to protect transgender students.
 
Officials at the Department of Justice and the Department of Education wrote a letter yesterday to every public-school district in the country, urging local officials to allow transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their chosen gender identity, School districts that ignore the directive may put their federal funding in jeopardy.
 
“A school’s failure to treat students consistent with their gender identity may create or contribute to a hostile environment in violation of Title IX," the Obama administration wrote, pointing to the 1972 law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in public education.
 
As Right Wing Watch reported, social conservatives and the religious right movement were apoplectic, with one leading organization recommending impeachment for President Obama in response to the policy.
After claiming that the president is "sacrificing children to advance an evil agenda" and is intentionally causing "social chaos," [Family Research Council President Tony Perkins] told Fox News' Todd Starnes today that Congress should launch impeachment proceedings against the president in retaliation: [...]
 
"If the president chooses to go forward with this outrageous order -- then congress should begin impeachment proceedings," [the FRC president] said. Perkins said the decree should be "resisted with ever legal and moral instrument we have available to us in this country."
Chances are, congressional Republicans are not going to use this as the basis for presidential impeachment -- in fact, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill were surprisingly quiet yesterday in the wake of the news -- but the response from the religious right was nevertheless a striking reminder: social conservatives may have lost the fight over marriage equality, but they've made transgender bathroom use the new hot-button issue in the culture war.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:
Bizarre fakery scandal hurts Trump character

Bizarre fakery scandal hurts Trump character

05/13/16 10:44PM

Rachel Maddow takes a look at Donald Trump's weird history of pretending to be someone else while speaking to the media about himself or on his own behalf, and the return of an embarrassing scandal with the publication of previously unheard audio tapes. watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 5.13.16

05/13/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* This is a major development in the debate over capital punishment: "The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced on Friday that it has imposed sweeping controls on the distribution of its products to ensure that none are used in lethal injections, a step that closes off the last remaining open-market source of drugs used in executions."
 
* If there's a good explanation for this, I'm eager to hear it: "The House will soon consider the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual piece of legislation that sets policy for the military. If the bill becomes law in its current form, the United States will break faith with the Afghans who served with U.S. troops and diplomats."
 
* The Obama administration sent a letter today "to every public school district in America warning them they should allow transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their chosen gender identity, or risk losing federal funding."
 
* Change no one should believe in: "The new Brazilian president's first pick for science minister was a creationist. He chose a soybean tycoon who has deforested large tracts of the Amazon rain forest to be his agriculture minister. And he is the first leader in decades to have no women in his cabinet at all."
 
* A case we've been watching: "A federal judge Friday put the brakes on releasing the names of the suspected Bridgegate conspirators. Judge Susan Wigenton delayed the release until Tuesday after lawyers for a "John Doe" filed a last-minute motion to stop it from being revealed."
 
* The U.S. Navy has "fired the commander of the 10 American sailors who entered Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf and were captured and held by Iran for about 15 hours. In a statement Thursday, the Navy said it had lost confidence in Cmdr. Eric Rasch, who was the executive officer of the squadron that included the 10 sailors at the time of the January incident."
 
* Another ugly oil spill: "Almost 90,000 gallons of crude oil gushed from a Shell oil facility into the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast on Thursday, leaving a 13- by 2-mile sheen of oil on the waves, federal authorities said."
 
* Arizona: "It's official: A federal judge has found Sheriff Joe Arpaio in civil contempt of federal court. A federal judge ruled that the Maricopa County lawman and three of his top aides violated a federal court order meant to curtail racial profiling in his agency, according to a ruling issued Friday."
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., speaks with Roll Call at his desk in the Hart Senate Office Building on Nov. 13, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

A Republican senator and his beloved conspiracy theory

05/13/16 04:30PM

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who's up for re-election this year, has an incentive to appear as moderate and level-headed as possible. He is, after all, a Republican running in a pretty blue state, sharing a ballot with Donald Trump in a presidential election year. The circumstances have made Kirk arguably the Senate's most endangered incumbent.
 
And yet, the GOP senator just keeps making bizarre comments. Politico reports today:
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk hasn't let up on his insistence that President Obama is using his power as president to lash out at a political enemy.
 
At a fundraising event last month in Chicago, the Illinois Republican can be heard on audio defending indicted New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, while accusing Obama of targeting Menendez because of his stance on Iran.
According to a recording Politico obtained, Kirk told his audience, "And let me say something about Bob Menendez. I believe that Bob Menendez was indicted solely on the crime of opposing the president on Iran."
 
It wasn't an off-hand comment: the Illinois Republican has pushed the same conspiracy theory over and over again.
 
To the extent that reality matters, we know that Kirk is completely wrong. The corruption investigation into Menendez's work initiated long before the Iran deal negotiations even began, and the indictment was issued before the Iran deal was finalized. Besides, Menendez's opposition to the international agreement was inconsequential, so the White House has no incentive to punish him.
 
But even if we put that aside, what Kirk is arguing is that the White House orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy, involving multiple federal prosecutors and investigators over the course of several years, to seek retribution against a senator from the president's own party, who generally agrees with the administration's position on most issues.
 
As proof, Kirk points to ... nothing. The Illinois Republican believes the White House is guilty of an impeachable offense: manipulating federal law enforcement to execute a partisan retribution scheme. This is a conspiracy theory that doesn't make any sense. The senator is comfortable throwing around this accusation, repeatedly and in public, despite having presented literally no evidence whatsoever.
 
Senators generally aren't supposed to behave this way. Senators worried about their re-election bids never behave this way.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, West Virginia, May 5, 2016. (Photo by Chris Tilley/Reuters)

Trump on his tax rate: 'None of your business'

05/13/16 12:50PM

The controversy surrounding Donald Trump and his hidden tax returns was, at a certain level, stuck. The presumptive Republican nominee could release the materials -- as every major-party nominee has done for the last 40 years -- but he's using an audit as an excuse to justify secrecy. In time, he'll either succumb to pressure or he won't.
 
But this morning the story took an unexpected turn. For quite a while, Trump has suggested he'd be comfortable with disclosure -- he specifically said this week he'd "like to" disclose the tax documents -- but the IRS process is standing in the way. It's a bogus posture, which he seemed to abandon this morning during an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes or no: Do you believe voters have a right to see your tax returns before they make a final decision?
 
TRUMP: I don't think they do.
He quickly added that he's willing to "present" the documents anyway, after "the audit ends."
 
When the host asked what tax rate he currently pays, the Republican candidate snapped, "It's none of your business. You'll see it when I release. But I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible."
 
There's no shortage of angles to this -- Trump's hypocrisy, his dishonesty, his reversals from previous commitments -- all of which raise questions about what in the world the presumptive GOP nominee is so desperate to hide. For that matter, given how eager Trump is to slash rates for the wealthiest of the wealthy -- people like Trump himself -- it arguably is our "business" to learn just how big a tax break the Republican candidate intends to give himself.
 
But just below the surface, Trump's rhetoric reminded me of something we heard four years ago.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.13.16

05/13/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* Donald Trump's butler this week called for President Obama's assassination. The Secret Service is following up.
 
* According to Politico, a group of staffers and volunteers for Bernie Sanders' campaign has begun "circulating a draft proposal calling on the senator to get out of the presidential race after the final burst of Democratic primaries on June 7, and concentrate on building a national progressive organization to stop Donald Trump."
 
* On a related note, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the only senator to endorse Sanders' candidacy, said this week that he's not on board with Sanders' plan to rely on superdelegates to override voters' will to win the Democratic nomination.
 
* Seventeen Republicans ran for president this cycle, and Ben Carson is leading an effort to convince each of them to support Trump. Two of them -- Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham -- have already categorically ruled out the possibility.
 
* Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has reportedly begun working with the Trump campaign, hoping to help the candidate "evolve" on matters of international affairs.
 
* Sen. Marco Rubio (R) raised some eyebrows yesterday when he hinted he might reverse course and run for re-election after all. His office soon after said the Florida senator was kidding.
 
* Trump is reportedly considering Newt Gingrich as a possible running mate, though it's hard not to wonder how much of these rumors are being fueled by the former House Speaker himself.
Citizens tour the Arizona Capitol grounds in Phoenix in this Dec. 14, 2004 file photo.

Arizona scheme raises 'court packing' questions

05/13/16 11:20AM

In recent years, Senate Republicans have somehow convinced themselves that "court packing" means making judicial nominations and then having the Senate confirm those jurists to the bench. In fact, as genuinely bizarre as this is, GOP senators have repeatedly suggested in recent years that if a Democratic president follows the constitutional process, the public should perceive it as scandalous and illegitimate.
 
It's not. "Court packing" was an FDR-era idea in which the executive branch would expand the number of seats on the bench in order to tilt the judiciary in the president's favor. In other words, if the White House's agenda struggled at the Supreme Court in a series of 5-4 rulings, the president could expand the court to 11 members, appoint two new allies, and voila, there'd be 6-5 rulings in the administration's favor.
 
The idea was floated in the 1930s, but it was considered deeply controversial and didn't go anywhere.
 
This year, however, Republican policymakers in Arizona have an idea: expand the state Supreme Court from five seats to seven, and let the state's current Republican governor fill the newly created vacancies. The proposal has already passed the GOP-led legislature, though the NBC affiliate in Tucson reported yesterday that the state's top judge is urging Gov. Doug Ducey (R) to veto the bill.
Chief Justice Scott Bales says in a letter to Ducey that the court's caseload doesn't merit expansion, especially when the Legislature has underfunded other court priorities.
 
The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the $1 million-per-year expansion in the just-ended session. It awaits Ducey's signature or veto.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) recently expanded his state's Supreme Court from seven justices to nine, which came on the heels of related efforts in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Iowa in recent years.
 
The Arizona initiative, in other words, does not appear to be an isolated incident.

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