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Image: Trump announces in Washington that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in Washington

This Week in God, 12.9.17

12/09/17 08:01AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at Donald Trump's announcement of a new U.S. policy towards Israel, which drew swift criticisms from a wide variety of countries, friend and foe, leading to speculation as to what motivated the Republican president to place such a dangerous bet.

A Wall Street Journal report explained that evangelical Christians and Trump's allies in the religious right movement launched a "sustained push," which "began before he was in office," and which had the intended effect.

Evangelical leaders have urged supporters to email the White House about moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They have advocated on television. And since Mr. Trump took office, they have spoken about it frequently with him and other White House officials, according to multiple evangelical leaders close to Mr. Trump.

"While this decision was not made exclusively in response to evangelicals, it would not have been made without the evangelical influence," said Johnnie Moore, a member of Mr. Trump's evangelical advisory board.... Mr. Moore said recognizing Jerusalem as the capital has been a frequent topic of conversation when evangelical leaders visit the White House, which under Mr. Trump has been almost daily.

The piece added that the evangelicals who lobbied the president and his team "prize Jerusalem as a holy city, with special status as the place of Christ's death and his awaited return."

Radical TV preacher Pat Robertson seemed to reference this on his television show this week, telling viewers, "The last battle is going to be over Jerusalem ... that is the holy city. You go in favor of breaking up Jerusalem, you're going against the direct word of Jesus, and this is a prophecy that has stood for hundreds of years." Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor and prominent White House ally, added that Jerusalem is the place Jesus “will set foot again on earth at his second coming.”

There's no reason to believe Trump made his controversial decision for theological reasons. Indeed, there's nothing to suggest the president even knows anything about this aspect of the issue.

But while the White House confronts international criticisms for abandoning a delicate U.S. policy, and deals with the regional unrest generated by Trump's announcement, it's worth recognizing who had the administration's ear. And in this case, those who had access and influence with the president's team had a faith-based vision that came to fruition this week.

The Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, another close White House ally, added this week that U.S. foreign policy towards Israel "is coming into alignment with biblical truth," at least as the religious right movement sees it.

Also from the God Machine this week:

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Friday's Mini-Report, 12.8.17

12/08/17 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Unrest in the Middle East: "Thousands took part in angry anti-U.S. demonstrations around the Muslim world Friday over the Trump administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital."

* In related news: "President Trump, in formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Wednesday, declared that the United States still supported a two-state solution to settle the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, provided it was 'agreed to by both sides.' For the first time in his 26 years as a peacemaker, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians did not agree."

* Congo: "In the deadliest single attack on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in recent memory, rebels in eastern Congo killed at least 14 peacekeepers and wounded 53 others in an assault on their base that was launched at nightfall and went on for hours."

* The story suddenly makes more sense: "Arizona Rep. Trent Franks allegedly made unwanted advances toward female staffers in his office and retaliated against one who rebuffed him, according to House GOP sources with knowledge of a complaint against him." Franks' last day was supposed to be Jan. 31. Instead, he quit today.

* Trump-Russia: "F.B.I. officials warned one of President Trump's top advisers, Hope Hicks, earlier this year about repeated attempts by Russian operatives to make contact with her during the presidential transition, according to people familiar with the events."

* Southern California: "Six major wildfires continued to rage out of control Friday morning, fed by erratic winds that have blanketed parts of Southern California in thick smoke and blown hot embers onto rooftops, turning communities to ash."

* Hurricane Maria: "Official Toll in Puerto Rico: 62. Actual Deaths May Be 1,052."

* Brexit: "A breakthrough Friday marked a milestone in grueling divorce talks between the U.K. and the European Union and opened the door to tough trade negotiations that will determine Britain's economic relations with Europe, the U.S. and the rest of the world."

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

Trump World has a new line on tax returns (which still doesn't work)

12/08/17 03:24PM

Last year, Donald Trump became the first major-party presidential candidate since Watergate to keep his tax returns hidden from public scrutiny. The official rationale was that he was under an IRS audit, which (a) was never substantiated and may not have been true; and (b) wasn't a legitimate excuse for secrecy, since the Republican candidate's returns could've been disclosed anyway.

The issue doesn't come up much anymore -- the answer is always the same -- so I was glad to see a reporter broach the subject at yesterday's press briefing with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The secrecy position hasn't changed, but I was glad to see a slightly different answer from the president's spokesperson:

"My understanding -- and I will double-check -- but the president's taxes, no matter who the president is, actually immediately go under audit after being filed."

In this case, Sanders is actually telling the truth. Since Watergate, every president, as a matter of course, has his or her annual tax returns audited so long as he or she is in office. It's not optional, and Trump's tax materials will be subjected to the same analysis as each of his modern predecessors' returns.

In fact, this creates a convenient excuse for Trump World. No one in the president's orbit would say this out loud, but they can now effectively tell the reporters and the public, "We refused to offer any proof of an audit last year, but now we can say with legal certainty that Trump's returns are the subject of an IRS audit."

There are, however, two nagging problems.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

White House faces questions about Trump's health after slurred words

12/08/17 02:13PM

We've talked a couple of times this week about the dangerous consequences surrounding Donald Trump's new policy toward Israel, which the president announced at a White House event on Wednesday. But as Rachel noted on last night's show, there are some lingering questions not only about what he said, but also about how he said it.

There was clearly something off about the way in which Trump spoke at the event, and while I'm not going to speculate about what may have been the cause for the president's slurred speech, his apparent difficulties did not go unnoticed.

President Donald Trump will have a physical exam early next year and will make the results public, the White House said Thursday, a day after the president appeared to slur his words in a public address.

Near the end of his policy remarks Wednesday on Israel, Trump, 71, began having difficulty with words that included the letter "s," voicing some of them as "sh." He ended by saying what sounded like "and God bless the United Shtesh."

At the very end of yesterday's briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to questions about Trump's difficulties in speaking by saying, "I know that there were a lot of questions on that -- frankly, pretty ridiculous questions. The president's throat was dry. Nothing more than that."

But that only fueled additional conversation about the subject. I can think of plenty of times in which I've had a dry throat, but it's never caused me to struggle with the letter "s."

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump departs the White House

As his support drops to a new low, Trump makes history

12/08/17 12:58PM

As the first year of the Donald Trump presidency nears its end, most national polling puts his approval rating in the mid- to high-30s, which is roughly where it's been since the summer. The latest national report from the Pew Research Center found that the Republican president has actually reached a new low, with his support dropping to just 32%.

To put that in context, among other presidents from this generation, Bill Clinton had the lowest approval rating at the end of his first year, and his support stood at 48% at this point in 1993. Trump is 16 points below that level, which is just embarrassing. The president wanted to make history, and he has, though probably not in the way he had in mind.

But going through the results, I was especially interested in the shifts in attitudes among traditional Trump supporters.

Currently, 76% of Republicans and Republican leaners approve of Trump's job performance, compared with 84% who did so in February. [...]

In addition, Trump's job rating has declined among several groups that gave him relatively high ratings in February, including older adults (38% of those 50 and older approve today, compared with 47% who did so in February) and whites (41% now, 49% then), as well as white evangelical Protestants (61% now, 78% then).

Even among white voters without college degrees, arguably the heart of Trump's base, his support has slipped 10 points, dropping from 56% at the start of the year to 46% now.

Looking through every demographic constituency -- age, race, religion, education level -- is there any group of Americans with whom Trump's support has gone up this year?

No. There are none. In fact, other than Republicans and white evangelical Protestants, Trump doesn't even reach 50% with any American constituency.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.8.17

12/08/17 12:00PM

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

* Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, hasn't changed his mind about Roy Moore's candidacy in Alabama. "Roy Moore will never have the support of the senatorial committee," Gardner told the Weekly Standard. "We will never endorse him. We won't support him."

* The Washington Post reports that Stand Up Republic, a group co-founded by former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, is "spending $500,000 on digital and TV ads that ask Alabama conservatives to reject Republican nominee Roy Moore's Senate bid."

* Media Matters, meanwhile, points to evidence that the National Rifle Association has invested in support of Moore's Republican campaign.

* Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn't intend to run for the U.S. House seat Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is poised to give up, but he told the Daily Beast he's "seriously, seriously, seriously considering running for the U.S. Senate."

* Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) hasn't faced intra-party pressure to resign following his sexual-harassment controversy, but Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Business Insider yesterday, "I think the filing deadline hasn't happened in Texas and Blake Farenthold has some thinking to do about whether he wants to run for re-election or not."

* Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) hasn't officially said whether he'll run for another term, but he's reportedly sent out notice of a re-election fundraiser he'll hold in early January.

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John Lewis attends an event on August 23, 2013 in Washington, United States. (Photo by Riccardo S. Savi/Getty)

White House shows how not to respond to John Lewis

12/08/17 11:20AM

The White House announced earlier this week that Donald Trump planned to attend the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum this weekend. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an iconic hero of the civil-rights movement, said yesterday that he won't attend the event if the president is there. The New York Times reported:

In a joint statement, Mr. Lewis and Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said Mr. Trump's presence at the event would be disrespectful to the memory of those who participated in the struggle for civil rights, particularly in light of his "disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants and National Football League players."

They encouraged people to visit the museum "after President Trump departs."

"President Trump's attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum," the statement said. "The struggles represented in this museum exemplify the truth of what really happened in Mississippi."

What struck me as especially notable was the response from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said yesterday that it's "unfortunate" that the Democratic congressmen would not "join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history."

I can appreciate that Sanders was in an awkward position, but she probably shouldn't have said anything at all, because her statement yesterday suggested it's "unfortunate" John Lewis isn't joining Trump in honoring John Lewis' sacrifices.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivers a speech billed as "A Vision for American Energy Dominance" at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Questions surround Trump cabinet secretary's use of helicopters

12/08/17 10:43AM

Most Secretaries of the Interior can go their entire tenures without generating national media attention or political controversies. Donald Trump's Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, has only been on the job for nine months, but he can't seem to stop generating national media attention and political controversies.

Politico reported yesterday on the Montana Republican's latest mess.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent more than $14,000 on government helicopters this summer to take himself and staff to and from official events near Washington, D.C., in order to accommodate his attendance at a swearing-in ceremony for his replacement in Congress and a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence, according to previously undisclosed official travel documents.

The travel logs, released to POLITICO via a Freedom of Information Act request, show Zinke using taxpayer-funded vehicles from the U.S. Park Police to help accommodate his political events schedule.

There's already an investigation underway into Zinke's dubious use of public money for his official travel, and this won't help.

But there's no reason to stop there. There have been questions about Zinke's wife saddling department staffers with extra work. The Federal Election Commission, meanwhile, has raised questions about a leadership PAC affiliated with Zinke during his time in Congress. Zinke also faced allegations about using unsavory lobbying tactics with U.S. senators.

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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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