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Thursday's Mini-Report, 7.23.15

07/23/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Sandra Bland: "Medical examiners ruled the death of Sandra Bland a suicide by hanging, and the autopsy uncovered no evidence of a violent struggle, a Texas prosecutor said Thursday."
 
* Important: "Turkey has agreed to allow the United States to use Turkish soil to launch attacks against the Islamic State, signaling a major shift in policy on the part of the once-reluctant American ally, U.S. officials said Thursday."
 
* Iraq: "The defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Thursday morning as American and Iraqi military officials finished plans for an assault meant to retake Ramadi from the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State."
 
* Saudi Arabia: "Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter gave a surprisingly upbeat assessment on Wednesday of American relations with Saudi Arabia, asserting that the kingdom welcomed the international nuclear deal reached with its regional rival, Iran."
 
* Great economic news: "The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits slid to the lowest level since 1973 in the seven days ended July 18, another sign of strong labor-market conditions."
 
* Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US and now an Israeli legislator, really isn't doing his side of the debate any favors: "Iran hawks finally presented a 'better' Iran deal. It's complete gibberish."
U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) listens in a Senate hearing. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Ron Johnson flubs another test

07/23/15 04:06PM

Perhaps no congressional Republican is quite as vulnerable as Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. Given the tough rematch he'll face with former Sen. Russ Feingold (D), one might assume the far-right incumbent would be going out of his way to be as impressive as possible.
 
If that's the plan, it's not going well. Just in recent months, Johnson has been caught up in an odd fight over the "Lego Movie"; his ridiculous anti-Obamacare lawsuit was laughed out of court; and his defense for signing onto a letter intended to sabotage American foreign policy wasn't especially coherent.
 
Today, however, seemed to reach a new low. Max Fisher reported, for example, on today's Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Top administration officials are at Congress today for a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Iran nuclear deal, a subject that has always brought out the crazy in American politicians.
 
No one expected this hearing to be anything other than a circus: The deal is politically contentious, and Republicans are trying to out-hawk one another for the coming presidential primaries. Congress did not disappoint.
Johnson, who Republicans also made chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, took the opportunity to lecture Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, an M.I.T. physicist, on "electro-magnetic pulse weapons." Moniz, naturally, said he had no idea what Johnson was talking about, prompting the Wisconsin senator to say he'd forward the secretary some information.
 
That's really not necessary. Right-wing chatter about EMP weapons is quite foolish and this nonsense has no place in a Senate debate over international nuclear policy. Fisher added, "Johnson's line of questioning, to a top-of-his-field nuclear physicist, is a little like asking Neil Armstrong if he thinks the moon landing might have been faked."
 
Wait, it gets worse.
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush waits in a hallway after a campaign event, June 27, 2015, in Henderson, Nev. (Photo by John Locher/AP)

The trouble with Bush's proposed lobbying reforms

07/23/15 12:49PM

Jeb Bush, eager to position himself as a reform-minded presidential candidate, delivered an interesting speech in his home state of Florida this week on his intention to clean up Washington, D.C. The Wall Street Journal reported:
Vowing to rattle the political establishment in Washington, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush on Monday said members of Congress should disclose their meetings with lobbyists and refrain from lobbying former colleagues for six years after leaving office. [...]
 
"We need a president willing to challenge the whole culture in our nation's capital," Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida, said in Tallahassee, the state capital.
At face value, there's nothing especially wrong with any of this. It's a little odd to hear the message coming from someone whose family played such a dominant role in the nation's capital for so long, and who's spent his life benefiting from his Beltway connections, but a six-year ban would be pretty ambitious and there's certainly nothing wrong with Bush making the issue an important part of his platform.
 
But some of the relevant details make the former governor an imperfect messenger. Politico's Marc Caputo, for example, reported that the forum at which Bush spoke was apparently organized by the Chamber of Commerce. "So Jeb gave a speech about lobbyist reforms to a room of lobbyists at a college run by a former lobbyist at a forum organized by lobbyists who then denied they organized it," Caputo wrote. [Update: my friends at the International Business Times first reported on this on Tuesday.]
 
There's also the inconvenient fact that Bush, despite his concerns about lobbyists' influence, has received generous financial support from lobbyists: "The campaign disclosed last week that eight lobbyists bundled a total of $228,400 of the $11.4 million raised in the first 15 days of Mr. Bush's campaign -- more money from the industry than any other Republican candidate."
 
But perhaps most problematic of all is the fact that Jeb Bush was actually himself a registered lobbyist. The Associated Press reported this morning:

Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.23.15

07/23/15 12:02PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* A new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Donald Trump leading the Republicans' presidential race with 19% support, just two points ahead of Scott Walker's 17%. Jeb Bush is third with 12%, followed by Ben Carson and Marco Rubio, who are tied for fourth with 10% each. No other candidate reached double digits.
 
* In the Democratic race, the same PPP poll found Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders by 35 points, 57% to 22%. That's a sizable advantage, but a month ago, Clinton was ahead 65% to 9%.
 
* Speaking of the Vermont Independent, Sanders unveiled legislation yesterday to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The bill will not advance in the Republican-led Congress, but it serves as a challenge to Clinton and other leading Democrats to keep pace.
 
* Though Jeb Bush boasts about his efforts at cleaning up Florida's state government, firing members of his administration if they "violated the public's trust," Politico reported that over the course of his two terms, Bush "often stood by appointees who were mired in scandal or mismanagement until long after damaging revelations emerged."
 
* As Rachel noted on the show last night, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), in his first full day as a presidential candidate, told a New Hampshire audience he supports deploying U.S. ground troops to combat ISIS. "This is something that has to be done -- let's just do it," he said.
 
* And speaking of Kasich, the Ohio governor will reportedly huddle with Mitt Romney today in New Hampshire. The failed GOP candidate will apparently "host Kasich for lunch at his waterfront compound on Lake Winnipesaukee,"
The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.

Trump's agenda reaches Capitol Hill

07/23/15 11:25AM

There's no denying the impact Donald Trump is having on the Republican presidential race. The New York real-estate developer and former reality-show host is not only leading in each of the recent national polls, but he's also dominating the GOP conversation in ways his rivals find exasperating, but which they seem powerless to change.
 
But the Washington Post reported this morning that Trump's influence is even reaching the Beltway, where the candidate is having some influence on "shaping the agenda of congressional Republicans."
As a presidential candidate, he deserves a significant share of the credit, or blame, for prompting the congressional debate over "sanctuary cities." Over the sleepy July Fourth holiday, he was the first national figure to seize on the murder in San Francisco of Kathryn Steinle, 32, allegedly by an illegal Mexican immigrant who should not have been in this country. The attention Trump brought played a central role in the Senate Judiciary Committee holding a hearing this week with testimony from Steinle's father and relatives of other victims who have been killed by illegal immigrants. [...]
 
Taking action on the issue, the House is poised to vote on a bill that would cut off funding to certain law enforcement agencies who don't comply with federal immigration law. There are several similar measures floating around the Senate.
In a statement yesterday the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said, "Donald Trump should not be setting the agenda for the United States Congress."
 
That seems fair under the circumstances.
U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Lausanne on March 31, 2015.

Obama admin puts '24-day' issue to the test

07/23/15 10:57AM

The vast majority of the arguments pushed by opponents of the international nuclear agreement with Iran are wildly unpersuasive. Some are stale bumper-sticker slogans, written by ideologues who haven't even read the deal, and some of them hardly even count as "arguments" at all.
 
But looking past the partisan nonsense and knee-jerk opposition to all diplomatic solutions, there is one criticism that, at face value, seems harder to dismiss. If the United States and our partners suspect Iran is violating the agreement, the apparent "24-day window" seems like it might give Iranian officials an opportunity to cheat.
 
In a new Washington Post op-ed, Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz tackled the point head on.
If the international community suspects that Iran is cheating, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can request access to any suspicious location. Much has been made about a possible 24-day delay before inspectors could gain access to suspected undeclared nuclear sites. To be clear, the IAEA can request access to any suspicious location with 24 hours' notice under the Additional Protocol of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which Iran will implement under this deal. This accord does not change that baseline. In fact, the deal enhances it by creating a new mechanism to ensure that the IAEA gets the required access and sets a firm time limit to resolve access issues within 24 days. [...]
 
Most important, environmental sampling can detect microscopic traces of nuclear activities even after attempts to remove evidence.
It's a credible response, though I'll confess that I don't know anything about "environmental sampling" and its ability to "detect microscopic traces of nuclear activities." Given how important this is to the entire debate, it's important to know whether this is accurate.
 
So, as it turns out, the Department of Energy did some interesting testing. Politico reported last night:
Bush speaks at a town hall meeting in Henderson, Nevada

Jeb Bush pushes to 'phase out' Medicare

07/23/15 10:05AM

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush appeared at a New Hampshire event last night sponsored by the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, and the former governor raised a few eyebrows with his comments on the future of Medicare.
"The left needs to join the conversation, but they haven't. I mean, when [Rep. Paul Ryan] came up with, one of his proposals as it relates to Medicare, the first thing I saw was a TV ad of a guy that looked just like Paul Ryan ... that was pushing an elderly person off the cliff in a wheelchair. That's their response.
 
"And I think we need to be vigilant about this and persuade people that our, when your volunteers go door to door, and they talk to people, people understand this. They know, and I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something -- because they're not going to have anything."
Remember, Jeb Bush is the ostensible moderate candidate in the massive GOP presidential field. It says something important about Republican politics in 2015 when the most mainstream candidate is also the candidate who wants to scrap Medicare altogether.
 
Regardless, there's quite a bit wrong with his take on the issue, both as a matter of politics and policy. Let's start with the former.
 
The Florida Republican is convinced that "people understand" the need to get rid of Medicare. He's mistaken. Given the polling from the last several years, what people understand is that Medicare is a popular and successful program, and a pillar of modern American life.
 
Previous attempts to "phase out" the program have met with widespread public scorn and if Jeb Bush believes he can "persuade people" to get rid of Medicare, he's likely to be disappointed.
Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and other members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi speak 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.

Benghazi Committee, Iran deal intersect

07/23/15 09:20AM

The ostensible point of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, on track to oversee the longest investigation in congressional history, is to examine the 2012 attack in Libya that left four Americans dead. We've already had seven other committees do this, but House Republicans demanded an eighth.
 
Nearly three years after the deadly terrorism, however, the GOP-led panel is drifting, taking a keen interest in all kinds of other issues far from its mandate. The Associated Press reported last week that the GOP-led panel "has devolved from an investigation into the deaths of four Americans in Libya into a political fight over Hillary Rodham Clinton's emails and private computer server – a battle that is likely to stretch into the 2016 presidential election year."
 
And this week, the committee's focus has shifted once more, taking steps that Democrats believe are intended to undermine the debate over the international nuclear agreement with Iran [Update: see below].
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) says the GOP-controlled House Select Committee on Benghazi is trying to undermine the Iran nuclear deal by scheduling a hearing at the same time Secretary of State Kerry is supposed to testify to the House.
 
Kerry is scheduled to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee next Tuesday morning to discuss the merits of the nuclear agreement. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was involved in the negotiations, will also testify, as will Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
 
But the Benghazi panel wants Kerry's chief of staff, another major player in the talks, to testify before their panel on the same day.
"Next week -- on the same day Secretary Kerry will be testifying about the historic deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- Republicans are demanding that his chief of staff, who spent months working on these negotiations, drop everything and testify before the Benghazi Select Committee on the pace of document production," Cummings wrote this week. "This is either embarrassingly poor planning or a flimsy attempt by Republicans to scuttle the Iran deal. Either way, this is a preposterous abuse of authority."
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters during a political rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on July 11, 2015 in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo by Charlie Leight/Getty)

Trump keeps third-party bid on the table

07/23/15 08:41AM

Donald Trump's comments about John McCain over the weekend made plenty of headlines, but there was something else the Republican presidential candidate said at the same forum that may have a lasting impact.
 
An attendee asked Trump on Saturday, "Would you go on record today saying that, if you can't get the Republican nomination, you will not run as a third-party candidate?" Trump shook his head and replied, "No. No, I won't go on record saying that."
 
It's a subject that comes up with surprising frequency. Two weeks ago, the candidate boasted, "I've had many, many people ask me about running as an independent. My sole focus is to run as a Republican. I'm a conservative Republican.... It's something I'm not thinking about right now."
 
Two days later, the topic was still on Trump's mind. "So many people want me to run as an independent -- so many people. I have been asked by -- you have no idea, everybody wants me to do it," he told the Washington Post.
 
And in a new interview with The Hill, Trump's interest in a third-party candidacy almost sounded like a threat.
Donald Trump says the chances that he will launch a third-party White House run will "absolutely" increase if the Republican National Committee is unfair to him during the 2016 primary season.
 
"The RNC has not been supportive. They were always supportive when I was a contributor. I was their fair-haired boy," the business mogul told The Hill in a 40-minute interview from his Manhattan office at Trump Tower on Wednesday. "The RNC has been, I think, very foolish."
He reportedly added, once again, that "so many people" want him to run an independent presidential bid. "I'll have to see how I'm being treated by the Republicans," Trump added. "Absolutely, if they're not fair, that would be a factor."
 
At this stage in the process, it's hard to say with confidence how serious to take rhetoric like this. Trump is no doubt aware of the consequences associated with splitting the far-right, which makes a third-party bid unlikely, but he also has an unquestionable thirst for attention -- and if his Republican campaign comes up short, an independent candidacy would guarantee months of time in the national spotlight, and quite possibly even a spot on the stage for the official presidential debates in the fall of 2016.
US military soldiers march during the Veterans Day Parade in New York on Nov. 11, 2014. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

GOP's Planned Parenthood fight blocks bill for veterans

07/23/15 08:00AM

Late yesterday morning, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) turned to Twitter to deliver a message to Senate Republicans: "Don't take something that should be above politics -- our sacred duty to veterans -- and pull it down into the muck of petty politics."
 
It quickly became clear exactly what the Democratic leader was referring to -- and the degree to which GOP senators were inclined to ignore her suggestion. The Washington Post reported late yesterday:
The burgeoning controversy over Planned Parenthood's fetal-tissue practices may have claimed its first victim: a bipartisan bill to help wounded veterans have children.
 
The Women Veterans and Families Health Services Act, a bill authored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that would require fertility treatment and counseling for "severely wounded, ill, or injured" military members or veterans, had been expected to proceed through the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday. But Murray said she has asked that the bill be pulled thanks to proposed amendments from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) -- including one that would have, in Tillis's words, prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs from working with "organizations that take human aborted babies' organs and sell them."
Left with little choice, Murray had to pull her bill -- a measure that had been considered uncontroversial -- because of the Republicans' new-found interest in crusading against Planned Parenthood.
 
It was a discouraging setback for proponents of expanded veterans' benefits, but it was probably just the opening salvo in a much larger campaign. Politico reported overnight that some GOP lawmakers intend to connect Planned Parenthood to a pending highway bill, too:

Trump's third-party threat and other headlines

07/23/15 07:36AM

Trump threatens a third-party run. (The Hill)

Pres. Obama makes his first trip to his father's homeland as President. (AP)

President Obama's trip to Kenya sets off gay rights debate in Africa. (New York Times)

Details of Chattanooga shooting emerge: 3-5 minutes of terror. (The Tennessean)

Sheriff: Sandra Bland told Texas jailer of prior suicide attempt. (AP)

Ted Cruz's thoughts on Star Trek captains, Tony Stark, and Spider-Man. (New York Times)

Defense Secretary Ash Carter makes a surprise trip to Baghdad. (AP)

Want more of Rachel on Seth Myers last night? Here are their discussions of Donald Trump and of Bernie Sanders. (Late Night with Seth Myers' youtube page)

read more

How will Trump out-Trump Trump?

How will Trump out-Trump Trump?

07/22/15 09:58PM

Rachel Maddow alerts viewers to an upcoming appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers and shares a clip in which the two speculate about how Donald Trump will out-do himself in order to retain the media spotlight. watch

Obama drafting new plan to close Guantanamo

Obama drafting new plan to close Guantanamo

07/22/15 09:48PM

Neal Katyal, who represented Guantanamo detainees before the Supreme Court, talks with Rachel Maddow about how President Obama could fulfill his goal of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, with or without the cooperation of Congress. watch

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