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The ghost of Al Franken and the mystery of the Gillibrand campaign’s failure to launch



HANOVER, N.H. — Meg and Tavis Doucette couldn’t recall what happened to Al Franken.

“I have it somewhere in my memory. I sort of recall that,” Meg said, as she waited in a college bar on a Friday night in June to hear Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — whom many Democrats have held responsible for Franken’s political exit.

“Yeah, that’s not even on my radar. I didn’t even really know to be honest,” her son, Tavis, added. “Now I feel bad. I have to go research that.”

Franken, the former senator from Minnesota, may not be on the Doucettes’ minds as they weigh 2020 Democratic candidates. But some high-powered donors and party heavyweights, whose opinion tends to play an outsize role at this stage of the primary, have not moved past Franken’s 2017 resignation. Gillibrand herself, at times, has seemingly been at pains to do so.

After Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly call for Franken to step down, setting off a wave of over two dozen other Democratic senators to also call for his resignation, many elite donors who had once supported her hesitated. Some said they viewed Gillibrand’s actions as opportunistic and self-serving, especially as the presidential election neared.

For months, the common explanation about why the high-profile senator from New York long seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party has failed to break through in the presidential primary has centered around this dynamic.

Many political insiders have viewed Gillibrand’s low fundraising and polling numbers — she hovers at a half percent in polling averages — as evidence of a backlash. Democratic voters and donors, the thinking goes, were upset after Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly pressure Franken to resign after multiple women accused him of inappropriate behavior.

Gillibrand’s campaign itself pointed to Franken to explain why she was raising significantly less as a presidential candidate than she did in her Senate re-election race last year. In a memo obtained by The New York Times, her campaign reportedly said that there was “no question” that Gillibrand’s first-quarter fundraising was negatively affect by those “who continue to punish Kirsten for standing up for her values and for women.”

Still, in conversations with voters in early primary states, many say they aren’t thinking of Franken when it comes to making a decision on who to support in the primary.

“What was interesting about Gillibrand is she immediately wanted to talk about Al Franken and how she responded to that. For me, as much as that is important, it wasn’t what I was super interested in hearing about,” said Emily Van Kirk of Iowa, recalling an event featuring Gillibrand she attended at the beginning of the year.

“I am a long way away from picking my candidate, and I will certainly be considering a handful of them, including Gillibrand. That’s why I’m here — so I can get more than just the soundbite,” George Sykes, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said at a coffee shop meet-and-greet with Gillibrand earlier this month, adding that he doesn’t have an opinion about the Franken resignation. “I didn’t particularly pay attention to it.”

Gillibrand says she has backed away from her initial strategy of explaining her thought process on Franken, recognizing that most voters aren’t interested in hearing about him. His name hardly comes up anymore, she said recently.

“No, not really, to be honest,” Gillibrand said in a phone interview with NBC News just ahead of the first Democratic debate last week, when asked if she hears from voters about Franken. “It seems to be something that some elite Democrats, elite Democratic donors, care about. But no, when I am on the campaign trail people ask me about how to get access to health care, they ask me about how they can get better public schools or free college, or how we can get better job training.”

While Franken could help make sense of Gillibrand’s low fundraising numbers from big-dollar donors who once supported her, it still does not fully capture why she has failed to garner more grassroots support and continues to lag behind candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has sworn off big donors all together.

The diagnosis for Gillibrand’s campaign headaches is more than just an Al Franken hangover. But many Democratic strategists and party leaders say they’re left puzzled.

“I just really don’t know. I am kind of at a loss for words right now,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist, as she grappled to explain Gillibrand’s struggling candidacy. “I think her campaign is a little confused, too.”

Some party leaders say Gillibrand’s problems started back home in New York. As other Democratic presidential candidates locked down home state support, Gillibrand struggled to get endorsements from the New York delegation. Some even publicly questioned the viability of her candidacy.

“I think that there was some lack of institutional support early on that contributed to a narrative that her run might be more quixotic than others,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and the former executive director of the New York Democratic Party, adding that this dynamic “contributed to a low enthusiasm with her at the start.”

Others say that Gillibrand’s decision to brand herself as the feminist candidate in the race has fallen flat, especially in a Democratic primary where voters expect all candidates to speak to issues such as women’s reproductive health care and paid family leave.

“She had a very mom-centric launch, which isn’t as effective when you are in a race against other moms that are talking about more than just that,” Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said in a phone interview with NBC News.

On the campaign trail, voters echo this sentiment.

“Women’s issues are very important to me,” said Cass Olsen, a New Hampshire retiree, after attending a meet-and-greet with Gillibrand. “But they can be — and they are being — addressed by men and other women as well. So I don’t know how it plays out with her. I am still unsure.”

And Gillibrand’s stump speech, which is centered around the importance of female representation in politics, has left some progressives with a sour taste in their mouths. Gillibrand, they say, has not always practiced what she preaches.

“She has really advanced the feminist causes throughout the country … but it’s troubling to see that she hasn’t gotten off the sidelines more for women in New York,” said Katz, who worked for Cynthia Nixon during her gubernatorial primary run against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018, pointing out that Gillibrand endorsed both Cuomo and then-Rep. Joe Crowley over their female Democratic challengers last year.

Her campaign pushes back on that idea, saying that donations surged in the weeks immediately following the release of her Reproductive Rights Agenda, and continued to surge after she called on Fox News for lying about abortion during a town hall, arguing that it helped her reach the required level of donors to make the debate stage.

Many voters and party leaders say that what’s holding Gillibrand back is lack of exposure. She’s had good moments — from launching her campaign outside of Trump Tower to being one of the first candidates to visit Georgia in the wake of the state’s near-total abortion ban — but none have managed to stick with the public, the way Kamala Harris grabbed the spotlight when she shared the stage with Gillibrand at last week’s Democratic debate.

“I don’t know how people get the name recognition,” said Karen Zurheide, 63, at a women’s health care roundtable with Gillibrand. “A lot of people have gotten a breakout moment and she just has not had that.”

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, sounded a similar note.

“It’s a really big field and so there are a lot of people not making a dent in the polls,” he said. “It can feel like a vicious cycle: You’re not covered so you don’t move up in the polls, and you don’t move up in the polls so you aren’t covered.”

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Trump admin weighs tightening restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work



ASPEN, Colo. — The Trump administration is weighing a decision to end waivers that allow Iran to operate a civilian nuclear program with international assistance, in a move that would dismantle a key pillar of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, according to two current U.S. officials and a former official familiar with the discussions.

The administration has been locked in an internal debate over the decision, and if carried out, the move could cause the unraveling of the international nuclear agreement that has been in jeopardy since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year.

The administration’s discussions coincide with rising tensions between Iran and the United States and a series of incidents in the Persian Gulf, including the downing of a U.S. drone and an Iranian drone, attacks on oil tankers and the seizure by Iran on Friday of two commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Fordow facility in Iran appears in a satellite image from 2013. DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

European governments have urged the administration not to revoke the civilian nuclear waivers, fearing such an action could blow up the fragile accord entirely and trigger a chain of escalation with Iran in its standoff with the United States.

The waivers allow Iran to receive help from countries that signed up to the nuclear accord to run several atomic sites for civilian purposes, including adapting a heavy water reactor at Arak and converting a former uranium enrichment facility at Fordow into a medical isotope research center. The waivers for Arak and Fordow in particular have come under criticism from Republican lawmakers and advocates of a hawkish stance on Iran.

The White House, State Department and Treasury Department declined to comment.

The Trump administration in May renewed the civilian nuclear waivers for a 90-day period, after having issued waivers for 180 days previously. The State Department originally justified the waivers as a way of preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons-related work.

Iran has long insisted on its right to a civilian nuclear program to generate electricity and conduct research. The nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, allowed Tehran to retain a limited civilian nuclear program while imposing restrictions on any potential path to an atomic weapon.

Apart from waivers for the Arak and Fordow sites, the U.S. has also granted waivers to permit Iran to run its sole nuclear power reactor at Bushehr with Russian assistance and a research reactor in Tehran to produce medical isotopes.

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The nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was designed to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons in return for easing U.S. and international economic sanctions.

Iran continued to abide by the deal for about a year even after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the accord. But Iran has begun breaching the terms of the deal in recent weeks, exceeding the limits on enriched uranium stockpiles and the levels of uranium enrichment.

Outspoken opponents of the nuclear deal in Congress, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, have been pushing the White House to end the waivers, citing Iran’s recent actions as more proof that Tehran cannot be trusted and should not be receiving any international assistance for nuclear activities.

Sen. Cruz calls the site at Fordow “a military bunker the Ayatollahs dug out of the side of a mountain so they could build nuclear bombs” and has been demanding the administration stop permitting Tehran to conduct work there with outside assistance. “The Trump administration should immediately cancel the civil-nuclear waivers it has been issuing, which allow Iran to continue building up Fordow and other nuclear sites,” Cruz said in a statement last week.

Iran kept the Fordow site in the mountains near the city of Qom secret until the United States, Britain and France publicly revealed the uranium enrichment center in 2009. Iran has denied it has any plans to develop nuclear weapons.

Another proponent of scrapping the waivers, Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, which has sharply criticized the nuclear agreement, argues that Iran’s recent actions removed the rationale for maintaining the exception.

“The violations of the JCPOA have eliminated any justification for extending the waivers for having this kind of nuclear assistance and cooperation,” Dubowitz said. “We should be doing everything possible to prevent Iran from enhancing its nuclear infrastructure which has been designed from the ground up to build nuclear weapons.”

One Republican congressional aide told NBC News there is “enormous frustration” among GOP lawmakers in Congress that some officials inside the administration remained reluctant to revoke the waivers.

Arms control experts and former U.S. officials say the waivers allow the outside world to keep tabs on Iran’s nuclear activities and to ensure work at sites such as Fordow does not veer into potential weapons-related projects.

“It is clearly in the U.S. and international interest to allow the continuation of projects at key nuclear sites that reduce Iran’s nuclear weapons potential,” said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association.

Ending the waivers also would put the other governments that signed the deal, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, in a bind, Kimball said. Those countries — which have agreed to provide assistance on civilian nuclear projects — would have to decide whether to fulfill their commitments under the deal or risk U.S. sanctions, he said.

Scrapping the waivers could lead Iran to abandon the nuclear agreement entirely, and make it difficult for any future president to revive the deal, experts said. Most of the presidential candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination have said they would return the United States to the agreement.

Revoking the waivers would further escalate the crisis between Iran and could close the door to possible negotiations, said Dana Stroul, a former Pentagon official and congressional policy advisor.

“It raises questions about the intentions of the Trump administration,” said Stroul, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It suggests the actual intention is to tear down the JCPOA and make it collapse.”

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Voters’ support for Trump grows, residents see race relations improving



President Donald Trump’s approval ratings in the South have ticked upward, with 54 percent of voters giving a thumbs-up to the way he’s handling his job, according to a new NBC News|SurveyMonkey online poll.

The survey of voters in 11 southern states found 38 percent said they “strongly approve” of the way Trump’s handling his job, and 16 percent who said they “somewhat approve.” That’s up slightly from a poll in September of last year, which put his total approval at 52 percent.

Those numbers are higher than his national approval rating, which NBC News reported Friday had risen to 48 percent.

The approval ratings swung wildly in some individual states in the polling. Trump has a 60 percent approval rating in Alabama, but just 48 percent approval in neighboring Georgia, the polls showed.

The polling was conducted between July 2 and July 16, so much of it was completed before Trump’s tweets on July 14 calling for four Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” The error estimate for registered voters is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

The survey also found slightly more support for former Vice President Joe Biden in the South than the rest of the country. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats said if the primary or caucus was being held in their state today, they’d vote for Biden vs. 25 percent nationwide.

The second most popular candidates were Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both had 14 percent of respondents say they’d vote for them. Thirteen percent said they’d vote for Sen. Kamala Harris, and 8 percent said they’d vote for former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Southerners said they were happy with the current state of the economy, with 72 percent of respondents saying the national economy is “very good” or “fairly good.”

More Southerners also said they think race relations in their states are improving. Twenty percent said they’re getting better, compared to 14 percent in September. The number of people who said relations are getting worse dropped significantly, from 44 percent in September to 34 percent in the current poll. A plurality of respondents, 44 percent, said they’re “about the same.”

Fifty-one percent of voters in Mississippi, where earlier this year Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law a bill prohibiting abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, said they’d like to see the Supreme Court overturn its decision in Roe v. Wade. Forty-six percent of respondents said they’d like the 1973 ruling, which established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, to stand.

The numbers were the exact opposite in Alabama, where Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the most stringent abortion ban in the country in May. Fifty-one percent of voters there said Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, while 46 percent said it should.

In Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a bill that was similar to Mississippi’s in May, 59 percent of respondents said the ruling should stand, while 37 percent said it should be overturned.

More poll data is here: Alabama; Georgia; Mississippi; Tennessee; and nationwide.

The NBC News|SurveyMonkey polls were conducted online among a regional sample of 4,869 adults ages 18 and over, including 4,203 who say they are registered to vote. The Southern region includes those who live in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas or Virginia. The poll was conducted from July 2 to July 16. Respondents for this survey were selected from the more than two million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day.

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Swedish PM warns Trump rapper ASAP Rocky won’t get special treatment



Sweden’s Prime Minister on Saturday warned that American rapper ASAP Rocky will not be getting special treatment despite President Donald Trump’s public intervention in the case.

Trump raised Rocky’s detention from the Oval Office and in a tweet on Friday after First Lady Melania Trump and a number of celebrities asked that he intervene.

On Saturday the president said he had “a very good call” with Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on the subject. He said he told Lofven that Rocky was not a flight risk and “offered to personally vouch for his bail.”

Trump added: “Our teams will be talking further, and we agreed to speak again in the next 48 hours!”

The Swedish leader said earlier that he was aware Trump “has a personal interest in the case.”

But Lofven said while he would welcome a conversation with Trump, it was not his place to sway the prosecutors or courts.

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“I will explain that the Swedish judicial system is independent,” he said of a possible call with the president. “In Sweden, everyone is equal before the law, and this includes visitors from other countries.”

Prosecutors announced Friday that Rocky will remain in jail while police finish their investigation into a fight in downtown Stockholm.

The rapper, whose real name is Rakim Mayers, 30, was detained on “probable grounds for serious assault” July 3. Stockholm’s District Court granted prosecutor Daniel Suneson’s request that Rocky should continue to be held in pretrial detention until July 25, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Trump said in the Oval Office later Friday that “Many, many members of the African American community have called me, friends of mine, and said, ‘Can you help?’”

The president added: “So, I personally don’t know ASAP Rocky, but I can tell you that he has tremendous support from the African American community in this country and when I say African American I think I can really say from everybody in the country because we’re all one.”

“Actually, the one who knew about A$AP Rocky was our first lady. She was telling me about, ‘Can you help ASAP Rocky?’” he said.

The first lady added: “We’ll be working with the State Department and we hope to get him home soon.”

Singer Justin Bieber thanked Trump for intervening early Saturday, while seeming to criticize the president’s immigration policies.

Rocky was arrested with three other people a day after headlining the Smash x Stadion hip-hop festival in the Swedish capital.

The two-time Grammy nominee and members of his entourage were alleged to have been involved in the brawl June 30 in which authorities said a person was beaten and cut with broken bottles. He has denied the assault accusation.

His detention was extended by six days on Friday after the prosecutor requested more time for the police to complete their investigation.

Rocky’s lawyer Slobodan Jovicic called the extension “unjust” and added the rapper was “tainted” by the experience.

Jovicic has maintained Rocky and his entourage were acting in self-defense when they were approached by two men on the street in the Swedish capital.

Rocky has had to cancel several shows in his European tour while he remains in custody.

Associated Press and Dartunorro Clark contributed.

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