The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Espy launches new ad ahead of Mississippi Senate rematch with Hyde-Smith
Mike Espy says Mississippi can go back or go to the future.
Espy, the Democrats' long-shot Senate nominee, is hitting the airwaves across the state with a direct swipe at his GOP opponent, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
In his first TV ad, set to start airing Thursday and shared exclusively with NBC News, Espy appears in front his high school alma mater talking about how Mississippi has changed — and hasn't — in the decades since he was one of the first Black students to integrate the state's public school system.
"Cindy Hyde-Smith is hurting our ability to recruit new businesses and jobs," Espy says.
Espy refers directly to the senator's controversial remark in November 2018, when she was caught on camera embracing a supporter saying, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row." (The senator apologized to anyone who was offended and said her words had been "twisted.")
The ad is part of six-figure buy following a string of strong fundraising months and buoyed by new internal polling showing a race within single digits. It's the first of at least three TV ads set to run across the state over the next few weeks.
"This is my story, and in a campaign like this, you have to get your story out," Espy said.
The 30-second spot is also a reintroduction of a rematch against Hyde-Smith, who defeated Espy in the 2018 special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. Despite losing by 66,000 votes, Espy won more than 46 percent of the statewide popular vote, making the race the best performance by a Democratic Senate candidate in Mississippi since 1982.
An internal Espy campaign poll from mid-August showed him 5 points behind Hyde-Smith. Other independent polls give Hyde-Smith more of an edge, and NBC News does not currently view the race as competitive. Nevertheless, the race is attracting big names in Democratic circles, including Stacey Abrams, who is campaigning with Espy this week.
Espy has agreed to debate Hyde-Smith before the election, but she has yet to agree to any debates, and none have been scheduled.
Messages to the Hyde-Smith campaign were not returned.
As Kanye West files suits to get on state ballots, more Republican ties to presidential campaign emerge
WASHINGTON — As Kanye West filed a series of lawsuits in recent days aimed at making the ballot as a presidential candidate in key states, he's also revealed more ties between the rap superstar and Republicans.
Like in Ohio, where West is suing to get on the ballot, the lawyer representing his campaign, Curt Hartman, is a former delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention.
In West Virginia, where West's campaign is also suing in federal court to get on the ballot there, his lawyers include J. Mark Adkins, a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association who has represented the Republican National Committee in the past, as well as a lawyer who represented the West Virginia Republican Party during a 2018 lawsuit involving ballot access, Richard Heath Jr.
And in Wisconsin, where the rapper is filing a lawsuit after failing to make the ballot there, one of his lawyers, Erick G. Kaardal, previously served as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
The Wisconsin suit initially included a contact address for the Virginia-based law firm Holtzman, Vogel, Josefiak and Torchinsky, a firm that employs multiple lawyers who served as top counsel to the Republican National Committee, worked for Republican presidential campaigns and in Republican administrations, including current one.
Jill Holtzman Vogel, the firm's managing partner and a former chief counsel to the RNC, directed NBC to a statement from West's lawyers that said the address was listed in error. But she did not respond to an additional question as to whether her firm is doing any work for West.
The contact information in the Wisconsin suit has since been updated to match the Wyoming address West is using across his ballot applications.
While West is suing in these states in the hopes of getting onto the presidential ballot, he's made it onto the presidential ballot in a handful of states, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Iowa, Vermont, Arkansas and Idaho.
The links are just the latest between West and Republicans. GOP operatives and those involved in Republican politics have helped West in his attempts to gain ballot access in other states, including Wisconsin, Missouri and Colorado.
West is a registered Republican voter in Wyoming who has effusively praised President Trump and met with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner during a recent trip to Colorado.
Gregg Keller, the Republican operative who is involved in West's efforts, recently addressed the campaign's litigation strategy in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon."Kanye is running to compete, to win, and ultimately, to change the nation and world for the better," Keller said. "We'll have aggressive efforts on all fronts: legal, political, grassroots, PR, and otherwise, to ensure Kanye can do so."
Massachusetts primaries to decide two heated contests Tuesday
WASHINGTON — Massachusetts holds its primaries Tuesday, including one of the biggest intraparty Senate contests still left on the calendar, as well as another challenge from the left against a sitting House Democratic committee chairman.
The Massachusetts Senate primary features incumbent Sen. Ed Markey — one of the longest-serving members of Congress (first joining the House in 1973) — and the scion of the Kennedy family in Joe Kennedy III.
From the start, Kennedy cast himself as part of the next generation of progressive voices despite his few policy differences with Markey. And early on in the campaign, Kennedy seemed to have the edge in polling.
But Markey closed the gap in recent months with a hard embrace of his progressive chops, debate performances, viral videos, and a boost from progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and affiliated groups that are rallying around their ally and promoting his work on issues like the Green New Deal.
Now, all of the recent public polling shows Markey with the advantage.
Kennedy has had the TV/radio advertising edge over Markey, both in spending by the campaign and its allied super PAC. And he recently snagged the endorsement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which frustrated progressives who saw the move as the establishment coming after one of their own.
Also taking place Tuesday is a competitive Massachusetts House primary. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass. — Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — is being challenged from the left by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.
In August, students at University of Massachusetts at Amherst accused Morse of inappropriate relationships with college students, but later came evidence that the charges might have been manufactured up by Neal supporters, though the Neal campaign has denied any involvement.
Neal has the endorsements of Pelosi, as well as his home state's Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.
Trump promised a health care plan in 'weeks,' but a month later, it hasn't come
WASHINGTON — Despite promising a health care overhaul by the end of the summer, August came and went without any such action from President Trump and his administration.
He has repeatedly floated legislation that could come together “in two weeks,” often using the timeframe as a placeholder for things that rarely, if ever, materialize.
The president told Chris Wallace in a Fox News Interview on July 19: “We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health care plan that the Supreme Court decision on DACA gave me the right to do.”
A few weeks later, he amended that statement. “We’re going to be introducing a tremendous health care plan sometime, hopefully, prior to end of the month,” Trump said during a news conference at the White House in early August, adding: “It’s just about completed.”
That hasn’t happened.
The White House claims that could change soon but declined to offer any specifics.
“President Trump recently issued several executive orders to lower the cost of prescription drugs, including making insulin and EpiPens available at low cost to low-income Americans. There will be more action to come in the coming weeks,” according to spokeswoman Sarah Matthews.
Last month, Trump also told reporters during a press briefing that there would be an executive order in the next few weeks “requiring health insurance companies to cover all preexisting conditions for all customers.”
Asked why this unilateral action was necessary when the Affordable Care Act already protects people with preexisting conditions, Trump told reporters it would be “just a double safety net” and “a second platform.”
The Trump administration is suing to overturn the entire ACA, which would include these protections. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments a week after Election Day.
Last cycle, then-candidate Trump ran on a platform to overturn the Affordable Care Act, consistently vowing to abolish it. An effort to do so in 2017 ultimately failed.
The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the debate over health care, making it a critical voting issue in November, as it was during the 2018 midterms, when more than 40 percent of voters said it was the most important matter facing the country, according to exit polls.
In the same interview with Fox News in late July, the president suggested he would also unveil an order related to immigration in the coming weeks. No such plan has been produced.
Trump campaign announces TV ad buys in five key states
WASHINGTON — The Trump campaign is going on the air this week with TV ad buys in five key states: Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Minnesota, senior adviser Jason Miller told reporters on Monday, returning to the airwaves in battleground states it pulled out of during the GOP convention.
All but Minnesota are seen as essential to Trump's path to re-election as he trails Democrat Joe Biden nationally and in most battleground state polls.
Miller said the new buy is focused on states where voting starts earliest. He said the campaign plans to spend $200 million on air between Labor Day and the election — the Biden campaign has announced it plans to spend $220 million in TV ads over that same time period.
The campaign stopped running television spots in battleground states during the GOP convention, only running national cable ads and spots in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign outspent the Trump campaign from the start of the Democratic convention through the Republican convention by $24 million on the airwaves.
Two notable absences from the campaign's newest announcement are Pennsylvania and Michigan — The Trump campaign hasn't run television ads in Michigan since late July and Pennsylvania since early August.
The president's campaign manager, Bill Stepien, added on the call with reporters that Trump has a path to victory even without them. "We will defend the 2016 map," Stepien said. "If he holds all other states that he won in 2016, the president need only win one of the three: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania."
A look back at Trump's 2016 RNC nomination speech
WASHINGTON ― President Trump is set to accept the Republican Party presidential nomination Thursday night with a speech at the White House. In his first acceptance speech in 2016, then-candidate Trump laid out a litany of complaints about President Barack Obama's administration and set some benchmarks for his own plans. Here’s the state of play on just some of those campaign promises:
Law and order
Four years ago, Trump argued that the Obama administration had rolled back criminal enforcement, pointing to increases in violent crime in cities across the country.
“Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities,” he said. “That’s the largest increase in 25 years.”
That 17 percent rise in the homicide rate from 2014 to 2015 appears to be from an analysis by The Washington Post and does represent the largest increase since 1990 ― though the homicide rate did not increase in every single one of those 50 cities.
While President Trump has recently discussed crime rising in Democratic-run cities, like New York and Chicago, the New York City and Chicago police departments report that violent crime is slightly down this year compared to 2019. And in general, violent crime in New York and Chicago have decreased over the last 20 years.
In 2016, Trump said that nearly 40 percent of African American children and 58 percent of Latinos were living in poverty. A Washington Post fact-check found those numbers misleading. In 2018 the poverty level of Black children had fallen to about 30 percent.
Trump also pledged to lower the national trade deficit but it has actually grown over the last three years. And he talked about reducing the national debt, which rose to $19 trillion under Obama but has now ballooned to over $26 trillion under Trump.
He also highlighted his intention to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with individual trade agreements. However, one of the signature accomplishments of Trump’s first term was the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which keeps several of NAFTA’s principles in-tact ― a multi-country agreement.
One of Trump's first legislative wins as president was his 2017 tax cut bill. The $1.5 trillion tax cut reduced the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent and lowered individual tax rates while doubling the standard deduction.
In 2016, Trump said there were three things needed to curb international terrorism: “have the best gathering of intelligence,” “abandon the failed policy of nation-building” in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria, and work with allies to destroy ISIS.
“We are going to win, we’re going to win fast,” Trump said.
There are differing ideas on what ending “nation-building” means. But through the lens of where troops are, there are currently about 5,200 American troops in Iraq. In Dec. 2016, there were 6,812 troops in Iraq. According to The New York Times, ISIS has been re-establishing itself in areas where it began 17 years ago, and attacks have started to surge.
When President Trump pulled troops out of Syria, there were several criticisms that Americans were leaving allied Kurdish forces unprotected and unable to hold territory back from ISIS. Kurds helped to guard 30 detention facilities that hold nearly 10,000 ISIS detainees across northern Syria.
Today, there are about 500 troops still in Syria, despite the president’s calls for a withdrawal of all 1,000 troops.
President Trump, however, would point to actions such as the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a U.S. raid as proof that ISIS has been stymied.
Trump promised in 2016 to “repeal and replace Obamacare.” And in the first two years of his administration, when he had unified control over Congress, there were attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act but they failed.
The one aspect of the law that was repealed was the individual mandate, which zeroed out the tax penalty on Americans who didn’t buy health insurance. But the president and Republicans in Congress have yet to put forward a new health care plan to replace the ACA. The Trump administration is also currently involved in a Texas lawsuit where they are arguing that the ACA is unconstitutional on the whole and should be overturned.
President Trump has teased a new health care plan throughout the summer, saying about a month ago, “We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks.” None of the president’s multiple past pledges have materialized and there are no signs that this next one will either.
Trump made immigration a pillar of both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, underlining the numbers of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. as a rationale for building a wall at the southern border.
“The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015,” Trump said at his first convention.
“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities,” he added.
While total apprehensions were higher in fiscal year 2016 than in 2015, those 2016 numbers were lower than those of both 2013 and 2014. And according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the 2016 totals represented “a fraction of the number of apprehensions routinely observed from the 1980s through 2008.”
After President Trump took office, the total number of apprehensions initially decreased to then hit its highest level since 2007 in 2019, which prompted the president to make an emergency declaration to acquire funding for his promised border wall.
Almost all border wall construction during Trump’s tenure has encompassed replacing barriers put in place by previous administrations ― not building up additional wall. As of last month, barriers cover approximately one-third of the border, a number that’s gone barely unchanged under Trump.
Two House Democrats ask for probe into possible Hatch Act violations
WASHINGTON — Two congressional Democrats are asking the U.S. Office of Special Council to investigate whether acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and “other senior members of the Trump administration” violated the Hatch Act during the Republican National Convention on Tuesday evening, according to a letter provided to NBC.
The Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits federal employees from engaging in most political activity inside federal buildings or while working for the federal government.
“They coordinated a citizenship ceremony and a pardon as elements in the convention’s nationally-televised programming,” wrote Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Don Beyer of Virginia. “These officials mixed official government business with political activities as part of one of the largest political campaign events of the year,” the two wrote. Krishnamoorthi sits on the House Oversight Committee.
OSC spokesman Zachary Kurz told NBC News the OSC, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, does not comment on specific complaints nor confirm whether there are open investigations.
While the president and vice president are exempt from the Hatch Act, administration officials and federal employees are not. The office has previously reprimanded a number of Trump officials, including counselor Kellyanne Conway, even recommending she be removed from her post for being a “repeat offender.”
During the second night of the Republican National Convention, Trump granted a presidential pardon from the White House, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared from Jerusalem, where he was on a taxpayer-funded official business trip, first lady Melania Trump delivered a speech from the Rose Garden and Wolf performed a naturalization ceremony inside the White House and standing next to Trump.
A White House official told NBC News in a statement that the naturalization ceremony and pardon were official events held prior to Tuesday evening. "The White House publicized the content of both events on a public website this afternoon (Tuesday) and the campaign decided to use the publicly available content for campaign purposes," the statement said. "There was no violation of law.”
The House Democrats' letter maintains that is not enough. “The publicization of the event offers no defense for actions clearly orchestrated for the purpose of influencing an election as part of a nationally-televised partisan event carefully planned days, if not weeks, in advance,” it says.
In a Wednesday statement, the OSC said there are certain areas of the White House where the Hatch Act does not prohibit federal employees from engaging in political activity.
“The West Lawn and Rose Garden are two such areas. Therefore, covered federal employees would not necessarily violate the Hatch Act merely by attending political events in those areas,” said the statement, in an apparent reference to the Rose Garden audience.
In the statement, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner did not address Wolf’s immigration naturalization ceremony but said this: “OSC’s role does not include grandstanding or holding press conferences about potential violations that may or may not occur.”
“Ultimately, officials and employees choose whether to comply with the law. Once they make that choice, it is OSC’s statutory role to receive complaints, investigate alleged Hatch Act violations, and determine which ones warrant prosecution," Kerner said.
Analysis: Trump and the GOP appear comfortable in mixing politics and the federal government
WASHINGTON — Conversations with Americans from inside the White House. The first lady's speech from the Rose Garden. The secretary of state giving an address while on an official overseas trip. The president's acceptance speech from the White House's South Lawn. Fireworks from the Washington Monument.
All are events at this week's Republican convention. And all either approach the fine line of violating the federal Hatch Act — or blatantly cross over it.
But there's an even bigger story at play: The Trump White House simply doesn't seem to care about the Hatch Act's principle of prohibiting executive-branch employees from engaging in political activity while on duty or in government buildings.
For example, when the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recommended last year that outgoing White House counselor Kellyanne Conway be removed from federal service for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act —because she engaged in partisan political activity in her official capacity — the White House objected.
The "overbroad and unsupported interpretation of the Hatch Act risks violating Ms. Conway's First Amendment rights and chills the free speech of all government employees," White House lawyer Pat Cipollone wrote.
As it turns out, Conway is addressing the GOP convention on Wednesday night.
The 1939 Hatch Act exempts the president and vice president, so it doesn't prohibit President Trump delivering his convention acceptance speech Thursday from the White House's South Lawn. (It also most likely doesn't apply to First Lady Melania Trump’s address, either, since she's technically not a government employee.)
But the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recently said in a letter that other employees are covered, "so there may be Hatch Act implications for those employees, depending on their level of involvement with the event and their position in the White House."
That includes any federal staffers who work on the speeches, who directly assist with the fireworks display, or who deliver a speech during a party's political convention, government ethics experts tell NBC News.
“Working on a party convention speech absolutely is partisan political activity, and is prohibited while on duty and while in federal government buildings," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor and expert on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Republican convention planners have defended convention speeches from prominent administration figures like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by saying that the Republican National Committee is paying for the costs, and that the speakers are addressing the county as a private citizen — not in their official capacity.
Yet government ethics experts say that all of this activity — including the president's convention speech — is at least ethically questionable because of the Hatch Act's underlying principle to not use the federal government for explicit political activity.
“Nobody is supposed to be using the functions of government for political gain,” says Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
But the Trump White House and the GOP convention planners don't seem to care.
Trump campaign off TV airwaves this week with convention in spotlight
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's campaign isn't running any television ads this week in key battleground states, as the Republican National Convention takes center stage.
The only television ads Trump has booked from Tuesday through Friday are in Washington D.C., to the tune of about $171,000, according to Advertising Analytics.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden's campaign has more than $9 million booked on the TV and radio airwaves during that time — including $3 million in Florida, $1.5 million in Pennsylvania, $1.3 million in North Carolina, $1.1 million in Wisconsin and almost $1 million in both Michigan and Arizona.
It's not like the Trump campaign will be absent from the airwaves this week — the Republican National Convention will likely draw millions of eyeballs in primetime, and the coronavirus-related restrictions allow for the party to control its message.
But the decision to go dark on TV outside of it means that if Trump doesn't go back up on the air through Friday, then the Biden campaign will have outspent him $28.4 million to $4.5 million on TV and radio from the start of the Democratic convention through this coming Friday.
Democrats offer counter-programming around GOP convention site
WASHINGTON — With the 2020 Republican National Convention hitting the airwaves this week, the Democratic National Committee is hitting the road with a series of counter-programming measures.
If you’re driving around the nation’s capital Tuesday, you may see a mobile billboard funded by the Democratic National Committee. With stops at the White House, the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium and the Republican National Committee’s offices, the DNC hopes to attract eyeballs and tweets with its message focused on the unemployment rate, small businesses and evictions.
“Over 100,000 small businesses have shuttered for good,” one slide says. “As many as 7 million could close forever by the end of 2020,” says the next, as video of President Trump golfing plays.
The goal is not to respond to what is said each night during the RNC, a DNC spokesperson told NBC News, but to share messages about what they believe to be Pres. Trump’s policy failures.
“Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis has cost millions of Americans their jobs, forced small businesses to close, and wrecked our economy,” DNC War Room senior spokesperson Lily Adams said. “He may want to spend their convention avoiding that reality, but we won’t let him escape his record of chaos that has hurt the American people.”
The DNC is also broadcasting its message in a new ad released Monday that called the RNC the "Republican National Chaos", and attacked President Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
And just blocks from the White House, the former site of the Newseum will be lit up this week with a projected slideshow of rising coronavirus statistics.
Biden campaign to air new spot across cable channels during RNC
WASHINGTON — Democratic nominee Joe Biden's campaign announced Monday that it will air a new television spot contrasting Biden's vision for the United States with President Trump's presidency on cable airwaves during the Republican National Convention as part of a $26 million ad campaign this week across broadcast, cable, radio and digital platforms.
The 60-second spot, entitled, "Heal America," argues that the United States needs a team that's "up to the task" of handling the four simultaneous crises plaguing the nation — public health, economic, climate, and racial injustice.
"Together, they'll lead America, unite America and heal America. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: because a united America will be a better America," the ad narrator concludes.