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The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:

Tom Steyer proposes national referendum, term limits on Congress

WASHINGTON — Liberal billionaire and newly declared Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer on Thursday said that as president he would let voters make laws directly through regular national referenda. 

It's part of Steyer's new structural reform plan, which also proposes fairly novel ideas like 12-year term limits on members of Congress, a national vote-by-mail system, public campaign financing, giving the Federal Elections Commission more teeth and different composition, and imposing independent redistricting commissions to tackle gerrymandering.

It also includes more standard Democratic fare like overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the ethics and elections reform package House Democrats put forward this year in their bill dubbed H.R. 1. 

A national referendum, where voters can change laws at the ballot box, would tip the U.S. more towards direct democracy and away from the representative government envisioned by the Founders.

That and other of Steyer's ideas would likely face constitutional and legal challenges, let alone political ones in Congress, since the Constitution gives states, not the federal government, most of the power to govern elections. 

National referenda would make the U.S. look more like Steyer's California, which has a robust history and culture of citizen-initiated ballot measures. Critics say California ballot measure campaigns are often pushed by wealthy individuals or special interests in the guise of populism, while proponents say they restore power to the people.

In a video touting his new plan, Steyer touts his work in California — and the millions he spent there — to advance ballot measures that led to higher taxes on cigarettes to fund health care, an oil extraction tax, and the closing of "corporate loopholes" in the tax code. 

"Here's the difference between me and the other candidates: I don't think we can fix our democracy from the inside," Steyer says in the video. "I trust the people. And as president, I will give you tools we need to fix our democracy." 

Elizabeth Warren releases new immigration plan

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has released a new plan on immigration ahead of her speech at the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) National Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Thursday. Here are some of the key aspects of her plan include:

  • Decriminalize immigration and focus enforcement on serious criminal offenses and make it a civil offense.
  • Stop cops from serving as immigration enforcement agents.
  • Promises to investigate Trump admin for abuses “perpetrated during the Trump era.”
  • End detention unless necessary and private detention facilities, expand use of parole.
  • Establish independent immigration courts.
  • Cancel Trump admin travel ban, raise refugee allowances, strengthen asylum protections.
  • Expand legal immigration, ease the naturalization process, reinstate DACA program and provide pathway to citizenship.
  • Create an “Office of New Americans” to help immigrants transition and assimilate.
  • Commits $1.5B annually for foreign aid to Western hemisphere.

Warren's proposals come amid growing reports of the mistreatment of migrants being detained at the border, congressional investigations into the administration's policies and reports that previously planned ICE deportation raids that were postponed three weeks ago are now scheduled to begin on Sunday. President Donald Trump is also expected to announce plans to use executive action to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census during a news conference Thursday afternoon. 

Buttigieg: Citizenship question is racially motivated census manipulation

WASHINGTON — Mayor Pete Buttigieg is accusing President Donald Trump of “racially and politically motivated manipulation of the census” as the president works to add a citizenship question to the census despite being rebuked by the courts.

In an interview with NBC News’ Craig Melvin, Buttigieg predicts that asking about citizenship will lead to under-representation on the 2020 census, making “the whole country worse off.” 

“There’s a reason why the courts ruled that this is wrong,” Buttigieg say. “I’ll let other scholars talk about why the president’s actions may be unconstitutional, but it’s very clear that it’s wrong.”

Buttigieg spoke hours before Trump was expected to use an afternoon news conference to announce he’s attempting to add the citizenship question to the census using executive action after the Supreme Court blocked the administration from including the question based on the rationale initially put forward.

Buttigieg’s remarks come as he puts a laser focus on increasing his appeal to African Americans and Hispanics who have been slow to warm to his campaign. His struggles in appealing to a broad cross-section of the Democratic primary electorate have raised growing questions about his continued viability in the primary. 

The South Bend mayor also rebuked Trump over his administration’s planned immigration raids across the country, saying they are designed to “strike fear into people at a moment when fear is something we have got way too much of in this country.” 

“If rumors start going around about raids — let alone if it starts actually happening — it immediately makes the community less safe, it makes people  less likely to participate in the economy, less likely to talk to law enforcement when they need help dealing with something that really is a matter of danger,” Buttigieg said.

As he works to show black voters in particular that he’s the best candidate to improve their lives, Buttigieg earlier Thursday released an 18-page proposal dubbed the “Douglass Plan” that his campaign hopes will stand out as the most comprehensive of any put forward by a 2020 Democratic candidate.

Buttigieg said he’s been working on the plan “for months” as way to better answer black voters’ inquiries on the campaign trail about how he is best positioned to improve their lives.

“But this isn’t just aimed at black voters,” Buttigieg says. “Frankly, there needs to be a conversation with white America, with white audiences about how none of us can or should be willing to live in a system where these kinds of systemic racist dimensions persist.”

Amy McGrath repeatedly changes mind on Kavanaugh question

WASHINGTON — Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, the party's top candidate in the race to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, changed her tune about whether she would have voted for Justice Brett Kavanaugh twice in a matter of hours — just a day after she launched her candidacy. 

In an interview with Louisville's The Courier-Journal, McGrath said that she was "very concerned" about Kavanaugh's "far-right stances" and that she believed Christine Blasey Ford's allegation that he sexually-assaulted her while both were teenagers was "credible." 

But she told the paper that "there was nothing in his record that I think would disqualify him in any way" and that "with Judge Kavanaugh, yeah, I probably would have voted for him." 

That answer surprised some Democrats following the bitter fight over Kavanaugh's confirmation last year. 

Later Wednesday evening, McGrath tweeted that "upon further reflection and further understanding of his record, I would have voted no," adding that "I know I disappointed many today with my initial answer on how I would have voted on Brett Kavanaugh." 

The reversal put McGrath closer to how she addressed Kavanaugh's confirmation during her 2018 run for the House. Last July, she posted unconditional criticism on Facebook about the judge and accused him of being "against women's reproductive rights, workers' rights [and] consumer protections."

McGrath made a big splash when she jumped into the race this week against the Republican leader, raising $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign. But McConnell's team has been aggressive in trying to tar McGrath as too liberal for the state, and has taken particular joy in her reversal on Kavanaugh.

Sanders campaign adds more staffers to New Hampshire operation

MANCHESTER, NH — Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential campaign is expanding its ground operation in New Hampshire with an announcement Thursday of five field office openings and an expanded staff focused on community organizing.

The Sanders campaign will now have 45 staffers working across its Manchester-based headquarters and Greater Nashua field office, with new offices set to open in West Lebanon, Manchester, Dover and Portsmouth. 

“We’re taking nothing for granted,” Sanders’ New Hampshire State Director Joe Caiazzo told NBC News. “We’re going to work hard to bring the Senator’s economic populous message across the state to the doors of every voter.”

After carrying the N.H. primary against Hillary Clinton in 2016 with 60.4 percent of the vote, the Sanders campaign recognizes the new challenges of the 2020 race.

“It’s about reigniting our volunteer network and going and expanding our base, too,” Caiazzo said. “I think it’s a completely different race from last time with such a big field. I think many candidates in the race need to show really strong in a number of the early contests, so I think a lot of people are in the same boat.”

The campaign’s increased field presence reflects a strategic emphasis on door-to-door canvassing and phone banks, rather than launching television or radio ads. 

“I’d venture to say that our volunteer network is larger than anyone else in the field,” Caiazzo said, adding, “We’re using staff to support the large volunteers to then go out there and talk to voters.” 

Biden to lay out foreign policy vision aimed at putting the U.S. 'back at the head of the table'

Joe Biden on Thursday will argue that President Trump’s foreign policy has emboldened authoritarian states while diminishing America’s role leading the free world, and warn that the U.S. Has “one chance to get it right” after he leaves office.

The former vice president will outline the three pillars of his vision for America’s global leadership in what his campaign is billing as a “forward-looking” address, designed to highlight both a policy area Biden has considered one of his strengths and return the focus on the battle with the Republican incumbent. 

Biden will vow to convene a summit of democratic states in the first year of his presidency and place a premium on acting in concert with U.S. allies, a senior campaign official said Wednesday in previewing the address. But the official would not say if Biden would address his 2002 vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq, another part of his Senate resume that rivals have seized on.

“There's probably a greater premium than there's ever been on working with allies and partners to deal with the greatest threats to the American people,” the official said. “No one nation acting alone can solve them and there's also no wall tall enough or strong enough to contain them. And yet, the president's 'America First' policy has actually turned into America alone.”

Biden’s three pillars would be to “repair and reinvigorate” America’s own democracy; pursue a global economy for the middle class; and putting the U.S. “back at the head of the table” in mobilizing allies to address global threats, from climate change, nuclear proliferation, cyber warfare to transnational terrorism. 

"I think from the vice president's perspective, the world does not govern itself,” the official said. "If the United States is not playing a lead role in setting rules, shaping the norms and the institutions and govern relations in nations, either someone else will do it … or, just as bad, no one does it and then you have chaos."

In South Carolina on Saturday, Biden argued there wasn’t “anyone in this race more prepared to lead the world than me.”

"That sounds like I'm bragging," he continued, "but that's what I truly believe because I've been engaged with it my entire career.” 

He acknowledged in that speech voting to “give authority to Bush” in 2002, but said that vote "didn't stop President Obama from within the first month turning me … to handle Iraq once we took office, giving me the responsibility to coordinate all the agencies, to bring home 150,000 combat troops including my son.”

The Biden campaign also previewed his attacks against Trump in a newly released digital video, which paints the president as embracing dictators, threatening war, leaving international agreements, launching trade wars and embarrassing the United States.

Buttigieg releases 18-page plan to help African Americans

WASHINGTON — Working to prove himself to African American voters, Pete Buttigieg is releasing an 18-page plan Thursday to improve conditions and opportunity for black Americans on everything from the health care, education and criminal justice systems to entrepreneurship and access to credit.

The wide-ranging plan constitutes Buttigieg’s initial version of a proposal for reparations for slavery. His campaign says it views it as a “complement” to H.R. 40, legislation working its way through the House to create a commission to craft a national reparations proposal. The legislation is widely supported by the 2020 Democratic candidates including Buttigieg, and Sen. Cory Booker has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

“We have lived in the shadow of systemic racism for too long,” Buttigieg said in a statement announcing the plan, citing “a rise in white nationalism” and disparate educational and health outcomes for white and black Americans. “That should make us all wonder how the richest country on earth can allow this to happen under our noses.”

Buttigieg’s plan would:

  • Seek to boost educational opportunities by offering free tuition at public schools for low-income students; canceling debts from underperforming for-profit colleges; and spending more on Title I schools.
  • Combat the wealth gap by directing 25 percent of federal contracting dollars to small business owners from “underserved communities;” forgiving college debt for entrepreneurs who start and maintain small businesses that employ at least 3 people; and boosting investment in minority-owned banks.
  • Address a criminal justice system Buttigieg calls “fundamentally racist” by ending mandatory minimums and incarceration for drug possession; cutting other sentences; legalizing marijuana; giving all former felons their voting rights back immediately; and creating a clemency commission independent from the Justice Department.
  • Create “Health Equity Zones” in areas of the U.S. with health disparities to identify the causes in those areas and invest funding conditional on progress in narrowing those gaps.
  • Combat voter suppression by creating automatic voter registration; normalizing online and same-day registration; making Election Day a holiday; giving Washington, D.C., full representation; and getting rid of the Electoral College.

Although Buttigieg has floated some of the individual proposals before, his presidential campaign is putting a spotlight on the comprehensive plan this week as he works to address growing concerns that his difficulty appealing to black voters may be too significant an obstacle for his upstart campaign to overcome.

Buttigieg had already been struggling to expand his support to include African Americans and other minorities when a crisis erupted last month over race and policing in South Bend, Indiana, where Buttigieg is mayor. After a white officer shot and killed a black man, Buttigieg was confronted by anger, mistrust and frustration from many black constituents who held him responsible. He eventually conceded failure during the first presidential debates in diversifying the police force and executing a body camera policy for police.

Greg Murphy wins GOP runoff in North Carolina's 3rd district

WASHINGTON — State Rep. Greg Murphy, a House Freedom Caucus-backed candidate in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, handily defeated pediatrician Joan Perry in the GOP primary runoff Tuesday, taking nearly 60 percent of the vote to Perry's 40 percent.

The North Carolina race caught national attention after the conservative women's group, Winning for Women, launched it’s “20 in 20” action plan to elect 20 Republican women to the House in 2020.  The group was backing Perry after Republican women in the House saw their ranks slashed from 23 to 13 members in the 2018 midterm elections.

“Joan ran a great campaign and we’re proud to have supported her from day one. We took a political outsider with no name recognition and helped elevate her through a field of 17 candidates into a two-person runoff. Primary support is critical to electing more women,” Winning for Women Executive Director Rebecca Schuller said in a statement. “This race is exactly why we are needed more than ever. We’re not stopping here, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to get more women in the House in 2020.”

While other big-name supporters rallied around Perry’s candidacy in North Carolina, like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, it wasn’t enough to push Perry over the finish line. 

Murphy will face-off against Democrat Allen Thomas in the district’s general election on Sept. 10.

McGrath raises a record $2.5 million on first day of Senate campaign

WASHINGTON — Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath raised more than $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign against Mitch McConnell — over $1 million of it coming in just the first five and a half hours after she announced, according to her campaign.

McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas said it’s the most ever raised in the first 24 hours of a Senate campaign. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says the next closest was former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who raised $1 million in his first day of his campaign in Arizona.

The haul is a sign of just how deep Democratic antipathy toward McConnell, the Senate majority leader, runs in the Trump era.

All of the $2.5 million came in online donations with an average donation of $36.15, her campaign manager said. The $2.5 million total doesn’t include any additional traditional fundraising money that may have been raised in the form of checks or promised campaign contributions.

McGrath’s race against McConnell promises to be one of the most expensive Senate races of the 2020 election cycle. McConnell, as the Senate majority leader, has a formidable fundraising machine — in 2014, he raised and spent over $30 million in his race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. 

Harris, Ocasio-Cortez to introduce 'fair chance' housing bill

WASHINGTON — Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., plan to introduce legislation Wednesday aimed at reforming eviction and screening policies for federal housing assistance for people with criminal records.

The Fair Chance at Housing Act would make it more difficult for individuals and their families to be evicted for minor crimes as well as ban “1-strike” policies that allow for eviction after a single incident of criminal activity regardless of severity. The bill would also raise the standards of evidence used by public housing authorities when making screening or eviction determinations. 

Additionally, the bill provides $10 million in bonus funding for homeless service providers and would increase administrative funding to help house ex-offenders. 

“Too many people become involved in our criminal justice system and serve their time only to return home to face additional barriers to employment, education, and housing,” Harris said in a statement. “By requiring a higher standard of evidence and a more holistic review process, we are taking a significant step toward giving Americans a fair chance to succeed.”

The bill is Harris’ latest move to beef up her policy bona fides, especially as she looks to compete more directly with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in the 2020 Democratic primary. 

Housing barriers targeted at formerly incarcerated individuals disproportionately affect minorities and can increase a person’s chance of ending up back in prison, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice non-profit think tank. 

“The NAACP is pleased and proud to support this much-needed legislation by Senator Harris,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy. “This legislation represents an essential step toward reducing recidivism by helping ex-offenders find stable housing upon exiting a jail or prison and by keeping their family free from punishment by association.” 

Senate Democrats renew call for results of internal Acosta investigation

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are renewing a demand that the Department of Justice disclose the full results of an investigation into whether U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is guilty of "professional misconduct" in light of  “shocking developments” regarding a sex crime prosecution he handled over a decade ago.

In a letter obtained by NBC News, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., who have been pressing the department since April for information about its investigation into Acosta's previous handling of charges against billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, said “it is more important than ever” to provide an update on its probe and pledge to publicly release its findings.

Epstein is being charged with one count of sex trafficking conspiracy and one count of sex trafficking by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York in a newly unsealed indictment accusing the multimillionaire financier of exploiting a “vast network” of underage girls for sex.

Acosta was U.S. attorney for South Florida in 2007, when federal prosecutors struck a plea agreement allowing the wealthy financier and philanthropist to plead guilty to lesser charges in state court rather than face federal sex trafficking charges.

In its bail memorandum, the federal attorneys “cite discussions between Epstein’s lawyers and the Florida DOJ lawyers that demonstrate DOJ knew at the time about issues of obstruction, harassment, and witness tampering,” the senators wrote.  Yet “Acosta subsequently did not bring charges for these offenses, once again illustrating the inequities in our justice system in favor of the rich and powerful,” they wrote.

Since the investigation began in February, “we have heard nothing since that time regarding its progress or anticipated time of conclusion,” the senators wrote in the letter to Corey Amundson, director of the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

Kaine and Murray say that the DOJ had earlier indicated it would share its results “as appropriate” and “consistent with past practices,” while not committing to sharing a full version with the public. And while they have acknowledged DOJ policies that “substantially restrict” public disclosure of its records in general, they contend that standard should not apply to Acosta.

“Americans are right to expect a thorough, unbiased, and transparent investigation pursued with all possible expediency. These needs are only enhanced by the involvement of a sitting Cabinet official in this alleged misconduct,” the senators wrote.